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Consider shifting spring elections to fall

// Published January 13, 2010 in Capital Times

There will be a few serious judicial, school, county and local elections this spring.

But not enough.

After the Jan. 5 filing deadline passed, the list of uncontested races was far longer than the list of contested ones.

For instance, while there will be an interesting race for an open seat on the 4th District Court of Appeals, there won’t be many serious contests for county and municipal judgeships in Dane County — or, for that matter, the rest of Wisconsin.

A little more than half of the seats on the Dane County Board will be contested, but voters in 17 districts around the county will get ballots with only one candidate for supervisor on them.

The three Madison School Board seats up for a vote this year are uncontested.

And the same goes for the majority of positions on schools boards and village and town boards around the county.

What this all adds up to is the prospect that voter turnout for the Feb. 16 nonpartisan judicial, county and local primaries will be miserable.

In fact, it could be even worse than in 2009, when the February primaries drew only 6 percent of eligible voters to the polls — despite a serious race for state superintendent of public instruction and a good many judicial and municipal elections of consequence around the state.

Things were only marginally better in the April spring election, which, despite hotly contested races for state Supreme Court and superintendent of public instruction, saw less than one in five eligible voters cast ballots.

The dismally low turnouts of last year — which meant that candidates for the state’s top education job were nominated with the support of less than 2 percent of the potential electorate — sparked a flurry of discussion about reforms that might create more interest on the part of voters and candidates in elections that often play a definitional role in the quality of local schools and services and the shaping of tax, development and education policies.

State Rep. Gary Sherman, D-Port Wing, took the lead, proposing a constitutional amendment to shift nonpartisan elections to the fall.

“Democracy is ill-served in the spring election,” said Sherman, who pointed out: “When you have that low a turnout the opportunity for well-financed special interests to dominate the election is so much greater than it normally would be … the distortion of democracy is even worse than just the low turnout.”

Additionally, Sherman and various co-sponsors of his legislation — as well as the sponsor and co-sponsors of a parallel proposal in the state Senate — argued:

• Low turnout in spring elections for important judicial and policymaking posts raises doubts about the democratic legitimacy of the process.

• Hard-pressed counties and municipalities could save a great deal of money if they did not have to staff polling places that attract few voters.

• Candidates might be more likely to enter races if they did not have to decide to run and then collect signatures during the holiday season and then immediately start campaigning in the dead of winter.

To our view, those arguments make a good deal of sense.

We respect that there are savvy proposals that would keep judicial, school, county and municipal elections on the February primary, April general election cycle.

One scheme would shift the election of powerful county officers, such as the district attorney and sheriff, from the fall’s partisan ballot to the spring’s nonpartisan ballot.

Another would use mail-in ballots rather than expensive and difficult-to-staff polling stations.

Still another would eliminate the February primary and make the April contests instant-runoff elections. This approach allows voters to rank all the candidates on a ballot. Then the candidate receiving the fewest votes is dropped and the ballots are recounted, with the ballots cast for the defeated candidate counting for the voter’s next choice in the ranking. Through the process of elimination and the shifting of votes, one candidate eventually gets over 50 percent of the vote and is declared the winner.

Instant-runoff voting is working in communities across the country, including San Francisco and Burlington, Vt., and has tremendous potential to democratize our politics.

But we’re still not convinced that mail-in voting or instant-runoff voting would attract enough candidates or voters to spring elections.

For this reason, we hope that the state Assembly and Senate committees that deal with elections and campaign reform will take up Sherman’s proposal and give it a serious hearing.

The shift from spring to fall would be a dramatic one. But when it is possible to be nominated for important state, judicial and local positions with the support of less than 2 percent of the overall electorate, there is a dramatic problem. And it demands an appropriate response.