Last Tuesday, the City of Phoenix held a historic election where voters overwhelmingly rejected Propositions 105 and 106. For the fourth time in less than 20 years, Phoenix voters re-affirmed their support for light rail. They also stood up against out of state interests looking to dictate the financial future of the fifth largest city in the United States. Nearly 196,000 voters made their voice heard – a record turnout for a special election.
This election should be a message to those who look to help guide the future of Phoenix: voters want to protect the city’s investments in a sustainable transit system that encourages mobility, opportunity, and economic activity. They also trust their elected leaders to dictate the city’s budget – not people from Utah, Montana, or anywhere else.
Unfortunately, some folks at the Arizona Republic don’t seem to see it that way. Instead, they seized the opportunity to discuss low voter turnout and decry special elections. Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory – the Republic opposed both propositions!
Instead focusing on impact of the election, they hyper focused on the 26% of voters (and 13% of adults) voted in the election and opined, “The winning sides would have benefited from a true majority…” Indeed, it would be nice if more people voted in elections. But they don’t.
And if we used their rubric as the definition for so-called electoral success, very few issues or candidates would meet this incredibly high standard. These same articles and editorials could be written about countless important policy items that have been decided the past few decades.
Let’s break it down: there are approximately 7.17 million people in the State of Arizona according to the U.S. Census. Of which, approximately 5.52 million are over the age of 18. According to the Secretary of State, 3.78 million Arizonans are registered to vote. At our very best – if every single registered voter took the time to vote – only 68.4% of adults would be making our decisions.
The 2018 General Election had a near record breaking turnout for a mid-term at 64.8% – that’s only 43.6% of the adult population. The Presidential Election in 2016 was only considered by 48.1% of adults. Alas, neither decision was made by a majority of Arizonans.
The highest voter turnout in Arizona was 80.1% in 1980. By all accounts, the 2020 election may end up getting close to that record with nearly 3 million voters showing up. Even if that is the case, that still means 45% of adults decided to stay home!
If we move beyond that impossible standard to the “majority of registered voters,” the only elections that would fit that bill would be the November General Elections every two years. Even that is a spurious definition because as recently as November 2014 had voter turnout lower than 50%.
General Elections are already crowded and expensive affairs with long ballots and little chance to discuss local issues. This year, the Republic editorial board opinioned on both 105 and 106 and had extensive coverage, op-eds, and fact checks on the issues. It is doubtful that would have been the case if this issue was decided in, say, November 2018. It is not likely we would have had a full-throated debate about light rail and pensions amongst the most expensive campaign cycle in Arizona history with record setting money spent in the U.S. Senate race and statewide ballot propositions. Even in that scenario, there is no guarantee that more voters would have made it to the very bottom of the ballot where fall off is significant.
As the old saying goes, “The world belongs to those who show up.” Certainly, we can and should always do more increase voter turnout. However, lower turnout should not be used as a blunt instrument to diminish the election results or tarnish the intentions of those who actually vote.