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Student participation historically low in municipal elections

Laura Vilim | Tuesday, November 4, 2003

Municipal elections for such offices as mayor, city council and city clerk will be held in counties across the nation today, despite the fact that such races in non-presidential election years tend to receive low voter turnout.

Of the three levels of elections that are held in the United States – municipal, state and federal – municipal, or local, elections historically have the lowest voter turnout. There is also a particularly low percentage of young adults who vote in their local elections, especially for those who are enrolled in college or working in a job away from home.

For students at Notre Dame, several factors contribute to this lack of participation in municipal elections. According to assistant professor of political science Louis Ayala, coverage of the politicians who are running for office is usually limited to local newspapers, a resource that few students have access to while living hundreds of miles from home.

Local television stations have only recently devoted part of their daily news to election coverage, but even this information is typically not enough for a voter to make an informed decision about a particular candidate. In addition, even with access to information about the candidates, it is difficult to motivate students to vote in elections in a town they now call home only three months out of the year.

Another factor that keeps students from the polls is the general lack of information about polling places, dates and times that voting is available and the intricacies of absentee ballots.

Several students interviewed on campus were unaware that elections were being held today; others were unfamiliar with the term “municipal elections.” Many students said they know that elections are held every first Tuesday of November, but decided not to vote in this particular race.

Municipal elections tend to draw less attention from the public sector because, often, none of the highly dramatized events that occur on the state or federal levels is present among local candidates.

Ironically, local issues are not thought to be as important as some of the debates occurring on the federal level, even though attending to local issues would affect more citizens than would most federal issues, Ayala said.

He said students and faculty might be motivated to vote more often if they keep in mind that beneficial changes in their everyday lives cannot occur if they do not let their politicians know there is a problem.

“The next time [one] complain[s] that there are not enough fun things to do in town, or that the roads … tear up your car, or that you wish downtown had more diverse entertainment options, remember that municipal elections play a large part in deciding these questions,” Ayala said. “If you want the city to be more responsive to your needs and wishes, you first need to register a response.”

Students and faculty are also working to make the process of voting easier on campus in the hopes of encouraging more students to take part in the elections.

Sarah Wheaton, a freshman student council officer, said the Progressive Student and Faculty Alliance soon will be holding a voter registration drive for students in the library during the day and at night. At the drive, registration forms and information on absentee voting will be provided. The College Democrats will also be holding a registration drive, tentatively planned for the start of the spring semester. Further details for both drives will be provided at a later date.

In the South Bend area, one of the most important races is between mayoral incumbent Democrat Stephen Luecke and his Republican challenger Thomas Schmidt. If Luecke wins and serves the entire length of his term, he will become the longest-serving mayor of South Bend in history, surpassing the nine years of mayoralty by current Indiana Governor Joe Kernan.