Low voter turnout in local elections among concerns for Milwaukee Mayoral primary


Photo by Josh Meitz

The primary election for Milwaukee mayor will take place Feb. 15

The mayoral primary election is today and voters are deciding the two candidates advancing to the general election on April 5. However, low voter turnout continues to impact local elections.

The candidates are Marina Dimitrijevic, Bob Donovan, Ieshuh Griffin, Cavalier Johnson, Earnell Lucas, Michael Sampson and Lena Taylor.

Associate professor and assistant chair of/for political science Amber Wichowsky said that Milwaukee has a history of long-serving mayors, so she is excited about the new candidates.

“Two candidates will emerge for the April election, but this is a really interesting time because it is kind of unclear who the two candidates are going to be,” Wichowsky said.

In the mayoral candidate forum Feb. 9, Wichowsky said four key issues emerged, affordable housing, fiscal constraints, reckless driving and economic peace.

Some of the other issues discussed in the forum are the flight of the Black middle class from Milwaukee, the creation of economic and entrepreneurial opportunities, public safety, the Milwaukee Public School system, the eviction crisis, revenue generation and development in neighborhoods suffering from disinvestment.

As statistics have shown, voter turnout for presidential elections is much higher than voter turnout for local elections. In comparison to 66.8 percent of citizens voting in the 2020 presidential election, only 15 to 27 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in their local election.

Paul Nolette, associate professor of political science and chair of the political science department, said that people associate politics with Washington D.C. instead of local communities.

“This [lower voter turnout in local elections] has been something that is very consistent,” Nolette said. “It’s unfortunate because a lot of times the policies adopted at the local level are the ones that are the most tangible for people, the ones that make the most direct impact in their lives.”

There is not as much media representation for local elections which Nolette said could contribute to the low voter turnout. He also said that people might not be as familiar with local election candidates as much as presidential candidates.

“I think it [local elections] tend to get less voter turnout because you’re not bombarded with messages nearly as much as with the presidential election. Presidential elections these days are really a year-long process where you get lots of commercials. You hear about the candidates constantly, and the candidates are well-known are famous, people who have wide name recognition,” Nolette said.

Ryan Muldoon, junior in the College of Business Administration, was a poll worker in the most recent presidential election. Muldoon said that he wanted to be a poll worker to learn about the voting process.

“It was interesting to see everything up close and to see the process behind this big, debated issue. The voting process seems much more civilized than it sounds. In the general election, the polls were pretty busy, especially later in the day. For the local ones, they are really not as busy,” Muldoon said, “The local election is definitely more important, we have obviously seen with COVID-19 how much more authority our local governments have than the federal government.”

As a solution to low voter turnout, there are discussions around removing barriers to voter participation in elections, such as the Freedom to Vote Act.

“Making it easier for people to vote absentee, making it easier for the first time to get their voter ID and to participate in the process and this has been a big part of the political discussion about how do we tweak voting rules in a way that ideally get more people involved in the process, and so that’s part of the discussion, but a lot of that’s at the state level,” Nolette said.

Local elections have a much smaller pool of voters than in a presidential election, Nolette said, so one vote has more impact on the results and he encourages people to actively engage in elections.

“So I certainly encourage people to research the candidates and to participate in this local election because it does have a major impact on the environment right around you. This is making it a direct difference in their lives,” Nolette said.

This story was written by Hannah Hernandez. She can be reached at hannah.hernandez@marquette.edu.