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October 27, 2013

Ballot initiative in Merced could increase voter turnout while decreasing election price tag

On the Nov. 5 ballot, Mercedians will be able to decide if they want to move local elections to even years. Experts say that the change would save money and increase voter turnout.

If the voter turnout in recent years is any measuring stick, then the passage of a Merced ballot measure could quadruple the percentage of people at the polls and save the city some cash.

On Nov. 5, voters will decide if the city should amend its charter to hold local elections the same time as the general election, which are in even years. As the charter reads now, Merced’s mayoral and City Council elections are held in odd years.

“Generally speaking, the increase in turnout in cities that have concurrent elections ranges somewhere between 10percentage points and 30percentage points,” said UC Merced professor Jessica Trounstine. “It can be very large.”

Trounstine, who has a doctorate in political science, studies American politics, primarily concentrating on large cities. There is some “roll off” during those even years, she said, referring to voters who might fill in a presidential or gubernatorial bubble but skip local elections on the ballot.

“Not everybody who goes to vote for president or governor is also going to vote for mayor,” Trounstine said. “But many more of them will than otherwise would have if the election had been held nonconcurrently.”

According to numbers from the Merced County Registrar of Voters office, 51percent of Merced’s registered voters cast ballots in 2010, an even-yeared ballot that carried county and state elections.

That’s compared with the 12percent who voted in 2011, when only local elections were on the ballot. The following year, during the presidential election of 2012, 64percent of registered voters marked their ballots in the voting booth.

Some may worry that less-educated voters turn out in higher numbers during the general election, Trounstine said.

She said some research shows that during a nonconcurrent election – in Merced’s case that would be on odd years – the electorate is more likely to be white, older, more educated and more likely to be homeowners.

“Whether or not that’s a good or bad thing is in part your opinion,” she said. “It tends, if the new voters who come out to vote agree with you, then you like it.”

Councilman Tony Dossetti, who is not up for election this year, said getting more people out to vote is always good.

“I’d like to see people get involved, and I’d like to see people get engaged,” he said.

Dossetti said the only downside he could see in passing the ballot measure in Merced is the extension of terms. If the measure passes, the winners of the races for mayor and the three City Council seats will serve a term that’s a year longer than usual.

The extra year would allow the local elections to align with the 2016 presidential ballot.

Though the measure could raise turnout, the primary focus behind it is to match Merced’s election cycles with those of the state and federal government, Dossetti said. That would allow the city to bring down its election costs by sharing some of them with the other jurisdictions.

“We bear the whole cost of the election,” he said, referring to how elections are currently funded.

Registrar of Voters Barbara Levey said the cost of the 2011 election in Merced was more than $113,000. The city picked up the entire tab for ballot preparation, printing and mailing, as well as staff time and other fees.

Levey said she did not have an estimate for how much the city could save by moving to even years.

“They won’t save the whole thing,” she said, “but because statewide and countywide would be held at the same time, it would be reduced significantly.”

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