Once again we had a city election and hardly anyone came. The city blew over $200,000 for an election that didn’t accomplish anything. We again hear calls for changing the process, including moving City Council races to the same year as county elections.
But there are a few things that could be done short of that. Here are a few ideas for consideration.
There were two allegedly contested races in the primary. But as we all know, the top two candidates move on to the general election. Since there were only two candidates in each race they both moved on. All we learned from the primary is that incumbents Daniel Brown (84 percent) and Nick Della Volpe (63 percent) far out-polled their challengers and are favored to win the general election.
Election rules could be changed so that when there are only two candidates in a primary, the primary election could be suspended. (This would also eliminate write-in ambushes.)
Early voting locations were also in place for this primary. The purpose of early voting is to cut down on the crowds on election day and make it easier to vote. There will never be crowds for primary elections that are meaningless. Suspend early voting for city primary elections that are meaningless.
But even when there are real contests, city election turnout is usually low in years in which there is no mayoral race on the ballot. The more candidates you have on the ballot, the more people vote. Each candidate brings friends, family, and supporters to the polls. Put every seat on City Council on the ballot at one time. It would bring more people to the polls, it would bring people to the polls from all parts of the city, since all seats would be up. One reason county elections have better turnout is that are far more candidates on the ballot.
Term limits has come to mean eight-year terms. Serious people who want to run for City Council seem content to wait for an open seat. Incumbents rarely, if ever, get a serious challenge for a second term, (see vote totals in last week’s primary). Make City Council seats one six-year term. There would be no incumbents in each city election, thus ensuring more serious candidates and more at stake, and more participation.
All seats open for one six-year term would make for a more exciting election. Leave the mayor’s office to two four-year terms and have the mayoral race in a year without any Council races. Thus every election would have more meaning—replacing the mayor or replacing the entire City Council.
We also have the fiction that city races are nonpartisan. Did we not know that Victor Ashe and Bill Haslam were Republicans and that Madeline Rogero is a Democrat? We didn’t know that Rogero opponent Ivan Harmon was a Republican or that Mark Padgett was a Democrat?
Do we not also know that Democrats hold the mayor’s office in the Big Four cities in Tennessee—Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, as well as Knoxville?
Make city elections partisan and get the political parties involved.
One of the reasons city elections do not seem to excite the populace is that county government has taken over many of the functions that touch people every day. Over the last decades, the city has given its school system to the county. The county operates the health department and the libraries.
Without big ideas and bold initiatives it is hard for city government to generate a lot of excitement. Downtown renewal was one. Development of the South Knoxville waterfront stirs interest. Legacy Parks excites some people. But these are not projects that affect the lives of everyone who lives in the city. There are a lot of people in Knoxville indifferent to city government.
Unless you raise taxes, of course.
But regardless of the procedural changes that could increase turnout, it is up to the mayor and City Council to make city residents see that city government is relevant to their lives. Then they will show up and vote.