A low turnout for Election Day in an odd-numbered year highlighted the cost to hold an election without larger races on the ballot on Tuesday.
About 13.5 percent of voters turned out Tuesday, according to the most recent numbers, for the election of three Merced Irrigation District seats and one for the Gustine Unified School District.
That makes it the lowest turnout in an odd-numbered election in recent memory. Voter turnout in 2015 was 16.4 percent, while turnout in 2013 was 22 percent, though those years also had ballots with more offices up for election, according to the Merced County Registrar’s Office.
Roughly 150 more ballots are left to count, according to Registrar Barbara Levey, too few to make the turnout look much better. The election was estimated to cost $151,000 if it was an all-mail election, but Tuesday’s election will also include fees for pollworkers and other expenses, she said.
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The election is paid for by the districts that are on the ballot, and their share of the cost is based on the number of voters in the election. So MID is poised to bear most of the cost.
“It’s expensive, but the districts were well aware of the costs,” she said. “They will pay for virtually all of it.”
MID moved to odd-numbered elections in 2015 after switching to the even years in 2011, about the same time other governing bodies were switching to even years. Those elections tend to draw greater interest and turnout, because they include state and national races.
Merced City Council, for example, moved to even numbered years in 2013 after voter approval.
The MID board decided to move voting for its membership to odd years, reasoning that separating it from the even-year general elections would boost local control and protect farm interests from environmentalist-led campaigning, according to Sun-Star archives.
According to MID documents, the board estimated costs to be roughly $60,000 if MID is the only agency participating, according to archives. The average annual election costs were about $11,000 per year when the district was on even years.
The move to odd years was initiated by local farmers, who said they increasingly were concerned by environmental groups pushing the State Water Resources Control Board to release more water to flow through regional waterways in order to protect native fish. The “unimpaired flow” plan could limit the amount of water available to farmers through MID.
The five-member MID board, whose members are all tied to agriculture, oversees the Merced Irrigation District, which owns, operates and maintains water storage facilities on the Merced River, including the New Exchequer and McSwain dams. The district’s boundaries include 138,000 acres, according to its website. Members serve four-year terms, with either two seats or three seats up for a vote each election.