NOT ONLY is Columbia City Council wise to consider changing the date of city elections to boost turnout, but the seven-member body also is taking the responsible route by making the decision itself instead of asking voters what it should do.
The council had proposed an advisory referendum asking voters’ advice as to whether it should move the elections from the first Tuesday in April in even years to the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November in odd years. But the council would have abdicated its responsibility to govern and set a dangerous precedent had it pledged to do whatever voters wanted in a nonbinding referendum.
It is the council’s job to set the date of elections. Deferring to voters in a special election could create the unrealistic and erroneous expectation that this is the way government will operate, and dilute the authority given to elected officials. Voters shouldn’t have to become experts on all matters of government. We elect representatives to study the issues, review relevant information, weigh the pros and cons and make informed decisions on our behalf.
Some might argue that the council wouldn’t have been compelled to respect voters’ wishes. But if the council didn’t intend to listen to what voters said, what would have been the point? Why waste the time, money and effort?
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Fortunately, the council agreed with Mayor Steve Benjamin’s recommendation to make the decision itself. The council expects to take the issue up in August and is expected to give the public an opportunity to provide input. It is entirely appropriate to give residents an opportunity to challenge officials to make sound decisions by supplying information and raising questions. But in the end, it is the council’s job to decide.
Beyond the fact that it’s the council’s call, there is an even more obvious reason not to hold a referendum: Columbia voters — like many in municipalities across our state — have been sending a clear message on this matter for years, by not showing up at the polls. Historically, only about 15 percent to 20 percent of Columbia’s voters participate in city elections. Turnout in the city’s April elections was even more disappointing. Fewer than 8,500 of the city’s more than 69,000 voters cast ballots on April 3, resulting in turnout of 12 percent.
Just as there is no mystery as to what the problem is, the solution is quite clear as well: Municipalities should hold elections when people expect to vote — in November — not during spring break. Voters already recognize the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November in even years as Election Day.
Holding local elections in November in odd years, as Columbia City Council is contemplating and as the State Election Commission has been advocating for years, provides many of the advantages of the standard election date without its disadvantages: It makes sense to voters, but spares them from having to wade through federal, state and county elections, constitutional amendments and other ballot measures before reaching municipal races.
About a third of the state’s municipalities hold their elections at times other than November, and virtually all get similar sad results. While we are adamant about local officials governing their own communities, this is one of those special instances in which we believe lawmakers ought to step in and implement standard election dates to encourage people to participate in government. But until that happens, municipalities should make the change.
We commend City Council for nixing the idea of a referendum and urge its members to take the next step and change the election date to encourage more voters to participate in electing those who run the government that has the greatest direct impact on their lives.