As voter registration and other mechanical election procedures have gotten easier, most election experts see only three variables affecting voter turnout: 1) Do the voters believe that the offices up for election matter in their lives? 2) Do the voters believe that a difference exists between the competing candidates and their respective parties? And 3) Do the voters believe that their individual votes matter as to whom will get the office?
With only 12,243 Bloomingtonians voting in this year's city election, or around 21% of the age-eligible electorate, one or more of the above questions were answered in the negative by some 47,000 eligible voters. The 1995 city election, with a smaller population base, with 13,803 voters still has the highest participation rate of the last three municipal elections. But it trails badly the 21,737 who showed up in city precincts for the '96 presidential election. Even our last two off-year elections (ones without a presidential race) drew 14,069 and 13,142 in '98 and '02 respectively.
Now this year's election did get around 600 more voters than '99. Yet considering the Republicans did not have an official candidate for the most important office, the mayoralship, and that the Republican council candidates and the Democratic mayor candidate worked to blur any distinctions between the parties, the '95 turnout was no surprise. Indeed it may just have been the goal of a voter suppression strategy.
This year, however, the Republicans did put up a mayor candidate, who ran hard and spent generously. Their mayoral candidate and their council candidates on the whole were not reluctant to draw policy distinctions between themselves and their Democratic opposition. On the whole, they did so without resorting to the low-ball tactics of the '02 campaign that turns some of our more sensitive citizens off regarding elections. In brief, two contrasting visions of Bloomington's future were offered up and very distinct ways of using government to implement the policies leading to each vision.
The important office of mayor was being contested and the parties present clear contrasts, so why the low turnout? I think the answer goes back to the mayor race. Although Mr. Prall put up a spirited campaign, its theme and messages were so irrelevant to Bloomington that not a few eligible voters believed Kruzan would win big and that their vote was unimportant. So some Republicans, Democrats, and nonaffiliated voters chose not to vote, despite the efforts of both parties to improve turnout--including the Republicans' questionable use of mail-in voting.
The final results give some support for this hypothesis--63% to 37%. In the '99 city election the Democratic mayor candidate, not having a Republican opponent, received only 66% of the vote for mayor. One of his unknown and underfinanced independent opponents received only 10% less votes than Prall this year (27.5% to 37%). The Republican base-vote in the city is about 27.3% and the average GOP performance is around 44%. In short, Prall's vote was limited to Republican base and soft partisans, with almost no appeal to the toss up voters and even less to soft Democrats.
I think the turnout outcome would have been different had the Prall campaign the ability to craft and target a campaign message with far greater appeal to the toss-up voters and to soft Democratic partisans. Instead the Prall campaign and some of the Republican council candidates chose themes and messages that sounded more like they were running for elected office in Logootee or Mitchell. In the meantime, Kruzan conducted not only a well-financed but well-crafted and conducted campaign that had resonance with not only his base and soft partisans, groupings by themselves taking any Democrat close to majority, but also to toss-up voters and even some soft Republicans. Small wonder that some on all sides of the partisan divide said, "The major race isn't close, so my vote doesn't really matter. I'm not voting."
Moving beyond the continuation of very low turnout in city precincts is the rare phenomenon that all three Republican at-large candidates got more votes than the top of the ticket--Bruce got 20% greater than Prall, Brostoff 10% more, and Dougherty 5% more. Not that it mattered very much as the closest one, Bruce, had 41.9% of the turnout compared to the next Democrat, Ruff, who had 48.5% of the turnout.
The two Republican district incumbents received the Republican average for their respective districts and thus no real surprise there. I think the only surprises were Chris Sturbaum's and Dave Rollo's margins of victory, 16% and 14% respectively. In the latter, it may be possible that a third or even half of Sherman's 6% came ironically out of Young's total. Who says poetic justice doesn't exist? Perhaps next time Mr. Young will be more careful of whose ballot petitions he signs.
Less surprising is the probability that certain "Business" Democrats followed the HT's lead and cast their at-large votes for Mayer, Gaal, and Republican Bruce. Precinct analysis (occupational and income groups often live in different precincts) should establish this hypothesis. If true, then once again those Democrats who complain the loudest against litmus tests in voting will once have again applied such a test to a progressive Democrat. But once again Ruff proved able to stand up against the assaults from not only Republicans, but from a handful within his own party.
The '03 Bloomington election ushers in no profound change. Rather, clearly a large majority of those 22% voting said keep the city on the same channel, but apply some fine tuning. The changed channel of the Republican ticket was rejected significantly. The only thing it did was keep turnout low. The lesson, I think, is that contrasts are important but they should reflect realistic and relevant alternatives. The Republicans not only failed themselves this time, but failed the polity.
Don Moore is a Democratic Party strategist in Bloomington.