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The Mayor's Rx Creates Its Own Problems

by Joe Sullivan

Mayor Victor Ashe is rightfully concerned about low voter turnouts in the city elections—not just last year but throughout the 1990s. Fewer than 20 percent of the city's 100,000-plus registered voters cared enough to go to the polls in any of the decade's three mayoral elections, and little more than half as many turned out for purely City Council balloting.

The mayor is also to be commended for trying to do something about the problem instead of just lamenting it. At first blush, his proposal to hold future city elections in conjunction with state and federal elections, rather than in isolation, would seem to solve the turnout problem. Nearly 60,000 Knoxvillians voted in the 1996 presidential election compared to fewer than 18,000 in the 1999 mayoral contest.

However, relying on the pulling power of higher profile races to boost the votes cast for city offices creates its own set of problems. Nor is it clear that any such pulling power will even exist in the city election that often matters most: namely, the non-partisan primary for mayor in which any candidate who gets an outright majority of the votes cast is declared the winner (as Ashe has been in each of his last three mayoral victories).

Before assessing the pros and cons of Ashe's plan, it's necessary to describe exactly what he submitted to City Council last week. Any plan approved by council would go to a referendum of city voters, prospectively in August. The essence of Ashe's plan is to hold city primary and general elections in August and November respectively of even-numbered years. Starting in 2004, the mayor and the three at-large members of City Council would be elected in presidential years. Starting in 2002, the six district seats on City Council would be on the ballot in Tennessee gubernatorial years. On a transitional basis, a mayor and council members would be elected one more time in odd-numbered years when their present terms expire in 2001 and 2003. But these elections would only be for a one-year term. So whoever is elected to succeed Ashe and the eight City Council members whom term limits preclude from running again would face the rigors of launching another campaign for re-election almost as soon as they got elected in the first place?

The list of negatives associated with this plan below is not intended as a condemnation of it but rather to be weighed against the benefit of higher voter turnout. The negatives are as follows:

* Adding city posts to elections that are already crowded with candidates for federal, state and (in certain cases) county office would tend to create ballot clutter and confusion. Local candidates and issues could get crowded out of the public's attention by media and voter preoccupation with higher profile elections, especially in presidential election years.

"When a city holds its local elections at the same time as national elections, the local races get washed out and don't get the attention they deserve," asserts Roger Kemp, editor of the handbook Local Election Practices who is also the city manager of Meriden, Conn. and an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut. "It's an artificial way to solve the problem. It draws more people but not necessarily voters who have focused on local candidates."

* The campaign outlays needed to draw voter attention to their candidacies amid the clutter could make it much more expensive to run effectively for city office. At the same time, city candidates would be competing head-on for campaign contributions with candidates for county office, the state Legislature, governor, and U.S. Senate in even-numbered years (whereas now they have the field more nearly to themselves in odd-numbered years). "The proposed change would definitely favor candidates with deep pockets," ventures former mayor and 1999 mayoral contender Randy Tyree.

* Placing them on a ballot where every other race is being contested between Republicans and Democrats could compromise the non-partisan character of city elections. Candidates could be pressured to disclose their party affiliations as well as their positions on nationally inflammatory issues such as birth control that don't have much relevance to governing the city.

* To the extent that city races get decided in the August primary, the proposed change isn't likely to increase voter participation much at all. For example, voter turnout in the city in the August 1996 primary for state legislative and U.S. congressional seats was only 12,593, well below the lowest turnout in any recent mayoral race and not much higher than pure City Council contests. A likely outpouring of candidates in the next round of city elections, given the lame duck status of incumbents, could well result in November run-offs. But these would occur in the odd-numbered transitional voting years, and by 2004 the mayor and at-large City Council members could be just as dominant in August as Ashe and at-large councilmen Nick Pavlis, Jack Sharp, and Ed Shouse were in 1999. (Another change—this one clearly for the better—proposed by Ashe would spare at-large council candidates who win an outright majority in August from having to run again in November as was the case last year.)

Ashe acknowledges that his proposal would make Knoxville the only city in the country of any size to elect its mayor in conjunction with presidential voting; and he readily concedes that it has both pros and cons. But he goes on to say, "The present system is broke and deserves fixing. I'm not married to this plan and if someone else has a better alternative I'll welcome it."

It behooves City Council members and everyone else concerned with city governance to try to come up with one.

April 27, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 17
© 2000 Metro Pulse