On Tuesday, election judges will tally votes for Durango City Council candidates and a tax measure. In the end, a relatively small number of people – in a fairly narrow demographic – will have their voices heard.
In recent years, Durangoans from about ages 55 to 70 are the most likely to vote, even though they are outnumbered by voters younger than 35.
This is not unusual: Participation in municipal elections across the country have been historically low and attract older voters.
Since 2003, voter participation in Durango has been fairly stable – but low.
Across 144 larger U.S. cities, only about one-fifth of eligible voters participated in local elections in 2011, down from about one-fourth a decade earlier, according to an analysis by Governing, a policy magazine.
By comparison, about 25 percent of all eligible voters participated in Durango’s 2013 election.
However, some experts argue that a low turnout is not necessarily harmful.
“Basically, the importance of turnout really hinges on whether or not people are informed,” said Eric Oliver, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago who has researched local elections.
If more people turn out for an election but base their choices on whether they like the candidates’ names, it doesn’t improve the outcome, he said.
Durango City Clerk Amy Phillips tends to agree that the people who engage in April are committed.
“You get the ones that really understand and have taken the time to be informed on what we’re asking,” she said.
However, Fort Lewis College political science professor Rick Foster contends that everything should be done to boost turnout.
One widespread suggestion among experts is to align municipal elections with national elections in November because presidential races drive greater turnout. However, that would mix a national partisan election with local elections that are meant to be free of party affiliations.
But adopting party affiliations might help rather than hinder local elections because it’s the No. 1 clue people use to vote, Foster said.
Currently, partisan local elections are prohibited by Colorado law.
Applying party affiliations to candidates might prove difficult because municipal candidates largely have issues that don’t align necessarily with ideology, such as designating how property can be developed, Oliver said.
In addition, Phillips said local issues tend to get lost and overshadowed on a national ballot.
“We kind of zero in on the information in our April elections,” she said.
But what worries her is that even though the number of eligible voters increases every election, the number of people voting is not growing at the same pace.
“As an election official, you always want your numbers to grow,” she said.
The demographic for the most potential for growth in Durango is those younger than 35.
If those voters did turn out in force, they likely could change the conversation. For example, city election officials saw a boost in election registration among younger voters in 2001, when 21-year-old FLC student Aaron Tucson ran – and won – in the April City Council election.
But the hope for attracting those voters consistently is dim because they are the least likely to turn out in any election.
“Young people generally aren’t yet where they see how much stake they have in an electoral vote,” Foster said.
Residents who own property, pay property taxes and have lived in a town a long time generally are those who are motivated to vote, Oliver said.
“It begins to give them a greater sense of ownership,” he said.
Conversely, young people generally are renters and can be disconnected from how local politics affect them.
“I think when you’re going to school full time, it’s hard to focus energy on voting,” said Scott Greenler, president of the Associated Students at Fort Lewis College.
But he thought it might help to align local elections with national ones because more students are engaged with national politics.
Environmental issues also could drive more local college students to the polls, he said.
“Anything that is directly tied to environment is going to turn young people out more than any other issue,” he said.
A simple solution to engage more voters of all ages probably does not exist. About 25 years ago, many political scientists felt a mail-in ballot would raise voter turnout. At first, it did somewhat in Durango in 2003, but since then, it has stayed fairly stable.
“I would like to see a lot more participation, but a lot of attempts to do that have not been successful,” Foster said.