Despite trying a variety of election reforms aimed at increasing voter turnout, Takoma Park, Md., this week saw one of its lowest participation rates for a municipal election in last 20 years. But there was one silver lining for city leaders trying to improve voter access: Young voters came to the polls like never before.
In a city of 17,000, only 989 residents voted to re-elect incumbent mayor Bruce Williams. While the mayor’s race at least had a registered write-in challenger, none of the six city council elections had a contested race. Overall voter turnout was about 11 percent.
“You would definitely assume a low turnout,” says Peter Levine, a professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University. The election had no state or national offices on the ballot and no competitive local races, all of which might drive higher turnout, he noted.
As Governing reported in October, Takoma Park recently became the first city in the nation to lower the voting age for local elections to 16. Since the law change in May, 134 voters, ages 16 and 17, registered to vote in municipal elections, and 59 cast ballots in November. That means that roughly 44 percent of registered voters in the under-18 voting bloc participated in the city election.
That’s good news for long-term civic engagement, says Levine, because academic research shows that “voting is habit forming. If you voted in a past election, you tend to vote again.” The question going forward, Levine says, is whether the under-18 voters continue to vote at the same level, or if participation was abnormally high because this was the first time a 16-year-old could vote. When Congress lowered the voting age to 18 in 1972 for federal elections, turnout reached 52 percent for 18-to-24-year-olds, higher than in any year since. Another possibility, Levine says, is that parents and school teachers helped teenagers understand how voting works and what elected city leaders do, which motivated teenagers to vote.
Young voters weren’t the only target of recent election reforms in Takoma Park. When the city council lowered the voting age, it also allowed:
voters to both register and vote on election day felons to vote, so long as they have completed their incarceration a reduction in the residency requirement for local voters from 30 days to 21 days Takoma Park already allows undocumented immigrants to vote in city elections, so long as they meet other eligibility criteria, including the residency requirement. Despite all the policies meant to activate voter participation, the overall turnout on Nov. 5 was at the low end of historical turnout for city elections. A city document detailing registered voters and votes cast in city elections since 1993 shows that turnout has ranged from 10.28 percent in 2007 to 32 percent in 1995.
Councilman Tim Male, who first brought up the idea of lowering the voting age, says he doesn’t know what to make of the 11 percent overall turnout. “No one can remember the last election where no one was contesting,” Male says. “I don’t know what the right comparison is.”
Nonetheless, the city may experiment with other ways to make voting easier in local elections. Male pointed to nearby Rockville, Md., which held a referendum this year to shift city elections to even years when turnout is higher because of gubernatorial and presidential races. The ballot measure lost in Rockville, but a similar proposal may be worth exploring in Takoma Park, Male says. “I hope that we’ll keep making adjustments.”