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In Elections, Predictability is Good

Mandi Jo Hanneke

To be successful, local government needs to be accessible to everyone. Elections and term lengths have an important role in this.

Whether a voter follows local government closely or not, a person should be able to easily answer these questions when asked: when are Amherst’s local elections and what offices will be on the ballot?

Knowing these answers increases the likelihood of actually voting. And, currently, I don’t believe most of our 15,000+ voters can answer them correctly.

Predictability creates accessibility and helps increase turnout. And, turnout is important. A democracy succeeds when as many voters as possible weigh in on the decision.

If the voters don’t know when Election Day is, they won’t vote. The Charter Commission proposal moves local elections to November (in odd numbered years), on the day most people consider as “election day”. Research shows that having elections in November improves turnout.1

When local elections happen in a month other than November, they are harder to remember to those who aren’t familiar with the system.

Amherst has many voters who have lived in other places, both in and out of Massachusetts. Moving to Amherst, with the lack of “campaigning” that takes place currently, it’s difficult to know that an election is actually happening in March.

I’ve woken up some mornings in other places I’ve lived in Massachusetts and seen a sign “vote today” and thought “for what”? I didn’t know an election was coming up, didn’t know what offices were on the ballot, and didn’t even have an idea of who was running. If that’s a voter’s experience, he or she likely won’t vote. This is not a way for a democracy to succeed.

On the other hand, when November arrives, people (including me) expect to go to the polls. They’re on the lookout for campaign signs and literature. They’re looking for information in order to prepare to vote.

By moving local elections to November, the timing of all elections becomes predictable. No longer will there be elections every March and every other November and September (and the presidential primary every four years in June).

Every November, voters will go to the polls. It’s predictable—across all levels of offices, federal, state, and local. It’s familiar—to everyone, not just those residents who have lived in town for years.

That helps increase turnout, which means more residents exercise their voice and participate in government.

By moving local elections to November, the Commission had to change term lengths.

State law doesn’t allow towns to hold local elections on the same day as federal and state elections (even though that would be preferable because turnout would be significantly higher) without legislative approval every time it’s done.  If approval isn’t received, the election would have to be held on a different date—removing the predictability of elections. That outcome was not a risk the Commission was willing to take.

So, to make the election date predictable, three year terms were made unworkable. Term lengths could be two or four years (or longer).

The Commission discussed this issue on many nights, hearing good arguments for both lengths from many residents. Ultimately, the Charter proposes 2 year terms for all elected offices.

Why? Predictability and voice.

Every office, every local election, all two year terms.

No more wondering whether 2 or 1 select board seats are open. No more wondering why the ballot has seats for both 3 year and 2 year terms for the same office.

Two year terms permit more frequent input from the voters. Since each term is two years, instead of three2, each official is actually up for re-election more frequently than they currently are. This actually increases the voice of the voters.

Shorter terms also make offices more accessible to residents interested in running. Committing to four years of volunteer service to the Town is tough. It’s a long time and might deter interested residents from getting more involved. On the other hand, two years is more accessible; it’s an easier commitment to make.

The goal is to increase the number of people willing to run. Two year terms do that.

Predictability and accessibility are important, even in elections. Two year terms and November elections serve both of these purposes.

 

1 Hajnal, Zoltan L., and Paul G. Lewis. “Municipal institutions and voter turnout in local elections.” Urban Affairs Review 38.5 (2003): 645-668.

2Currently, there are 2 offices that have 1 year terms—the Moderator, being eliminated in the proposed Charter, and the Oliver Smith Will Elector, whose term is being increase. In addition, the Redevelopment Authority and Housing Authority currently have 5 year terms. The Charter moves to appointing the Redevelopment Authority and moves Housing Authority to 2 year terms.

Comments 2

  1. Well-argued and true about the research on turnout. Additionally, in preliminary research I am doing on local elections with colleagues Brian Schaffner and Jesse Rhodes at UMass we find that having Election Day in November improves representation of non-whites and low-income voters. The point, which you make well, is that a broader voting electorate — via November elections — is likely to give voice to more citizens in the town, particularly from groups that are represented less well through the current Town Meeting design.

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