Why do municipal primary elections even matter?

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - Aug. 9, 2019 at 12:05 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — There’s an unfortunate trend in elections. That is, voter turnout for municipal races tends to be significantly lower than state or federal elections. It’s even truer when it comes to municipal primaries.

On Tuesday, primary elections for municipalities will be held across Utah. Some early voting has already started, and there’s a good chance you’ve already received a primary ballot by mail if you’re a registered voter. Those must be postmarked no later than Monday or dropped in an official ballot drop box by 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Why vote in municipal elections?

So, why should you vote during this primary election and why does it matter? For starters, it sets the field for November. And since municipal elections are nonpartisan, anyone registered can have their say.

"You're kind of vetting the place for who's going to compete in the finals, and for some voters that's a tough thing to do because there are lots of candidates to choose from and they're not really sure who is the best choice out of those," said Matthew Burbank, a professor for the University of Utah’s Department of Political Science. "Yet, on the other hand, it's a good opportunity to learn more about candidates and have a chance to have an impact on who is actually going be able to run in the general election."

The rules of a primary election are simple. Voters choose who they think are the best candidates to appear on the ballot for a general election. Typically, a field is whittled down to twice the number of positions that need filling. For instance, in Salt Lake City that means the eight mayoral candidates will be narrowed down to two for voters to decide between in November.

So essentially, if there's a specific candidate you want to win, this is one way to make it happen, Burbank said. That’s true of nearly all primary races across the state — aside from Payson and Vineyard, which are experimenting ranked-choice voting this year for city council spots, but that's a totally different story that will play out during the general election.

Voter turnout

While the state doesn’t collect municipal election data, counties do. That gives an idea of statewide turnout during years when there are no state or federal elections. Historically, these elections result in lower voter turnouts.

Let’s take Weber County as an example. From 2014 through 2018, voter participation in primary elections was about 26%, as compared to 56% for general elections. That primary election data is weighed down by a 16.43% turnout in 2015 and a 25.61% showing in 2017, both of which were municipal primaries, and a 6.37% turnout in 2014 — before mail-in ballots were introduced for primaries.


That's alarming for someone like Weber County elections director Ryan Cowley. As he put it, it means for every resident who does vote because they want to see a candidate on the final ballot, there are three who just don't seem to care.

"A lot of times we’ll hear the people say, ‘Well, my vote doesn’t matter anyway,’ but it really does," he said. "That group that doesn’t vote is speaking by staying silent.”

Reasons people don't vote

There are multiple theories as to why people don’t vote during municipal primary elections. Once assumes that a mayoral race may not have the same gravitas as a presidential election, so the interest may be lower for both voters and the media. That can be seen in the high interest for the 2020 presidential election that already exists.

Another possible reason is that some may have no opinion on a race and may just wait to see who is on the ballot during a general election before they decide. It’s even possible that it’s because they don’t have time to look up all the candidates' platforms. Since the primary elections are nonpartisan, voters have to do their homework instead of voting on party lines.

Burbank explained that organizations like political parties or special interest groups do help get voters to polls by informing the public of voting deadlines. However, the incentive for those groups isn't quite there for nonpartisan elections because there is nothing to be gained or lost for any political party.

It's a good opportunity to learn more about candidates and have a chance to have an impact on who is actually going be able to run in the general election.

–Matthew Burbank, a professor for the University of Utah’s Department of Political Science

Political parties are traditionally what voters look for on a ballot if there isn’t time to learn about the candidate’s stance on issues.

“Typically when people are looking to vote, they often are guided by their sense of partisanship. If voters don’t know anything else about the candidates, they generally know which party they’re in," Burbank said. "There's always a bit of a debate whether it makes sense to have these as nonpartisan elections ... on the other hand, one of the advantages of having nonpartisan elections is it's one of the few places where we don't have that very consistent, repetitive routine debate between candidates. What that often leads to is more of a focus on local issues. And certainly, for mayors or members of the city council, that's largely (their priority)."

Cowley said his office often fields questions from people asking about someone’s political party when they don’t see it on the ballot, which plays into the theory. However, those calls usually turn into an opportunity to explain how to find platforms online. (Residents can enter their address on the Utah Elections website and find profiles of individuals who will be on their ballot.)

After those conversations, Cowley said residents usually find theirs to be a more meaningful political experience.

“I think sometimes people look for that party, but I think, in the end, people who really go looking for the information actually get down to the issues and it becomes more of an issue-driven conversation than just kind of what parties someone belongs to,” he said.

Voter participation has slightly increased in recent years thanks to Utah's vote-by-mail system, he added. He said he's hopeful that participation continues to rise because of it.

Both Cowley and Burbank point out this year's elections are an opportunity for Utahns to decide who will have a say about issues in a voter's backyard that will likely have more of an impact than national politics.

And the best way to ensure your voice is heard is to vote in the municipal primary.

"You get so hung up on president and Congress and Senate — and those things are important, but the decisions our city councilors make determine where we park and how the sales tax is spent," Cowley said, adding the election also affects, "to a certain extent, how our property tax is spent, and those things relate much more in our daily lives than a lot of the bigger federal races that get all of the attention.”

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