Low voter turnout is chronic problem in the capital city

The election spreadsheet before results. Juneau has 24,081 registered voters. Photo by Casey Kelly.

Voter turnout at Tuesday’s election was a dismal 14 and a half percent.

While absentee and question ballots have yet to be counted, turnout is unlikely to break 20 percent, according to City Clerk Laurie Sica.

“We have 830 absentee ballots to review and to be added to the total and we have 270 question ballots outstanding that need to be reviewed and added, so that’s about a thousand ballots. I think we’ll be up to about 20 percent or so,” she said after Tuesday’s ballots were counted.

The review board begins looking at those ballots on Wednesday.  The count is scheduled for Friday.

Watching the results come in, Mayor Merrill Sanford said the city needs to figure out ways to increase voter turnout.

“If that takes us mail-out balloting, that’s worked successfully in some places, Oregon and different places, maybe that’s what we need to do,” Sanford said. “But we need to look at different ways and different avenues of making it easier for our public to vote.”

He had the same concern last year, when turnout was only 32 percent.  More voters usually go to the polls when there’s a mayoral race and ballot issues, and last year a bond issue and sales tax question were on the ballot.

“Whenever we have tax issues where we have decisions to make on what we’re going to take out of people’s pocket that helps bring out another 10 to 20 percent,” he said, laughing.

CBJ Voter Turnout over 30 years

That’s still too low.

Considering the sparse ballot, Sica was not surprised at the low voter turnout.

Besides going to the polls on Election Day, Juneau voters have a number of ways to participate in an election. They can vote by fax, homebound voters can ask a relative or friend to bring them a ballot, then there’s the usual absentee by mail. Beginning two weeks before the election, they can vote an absentee or early ballot at two polling places in the borough.

“And a lot of people are taking advantage of that,” Sica said. “Basically you can consider that our biggest precinct turnout was our absentee stations.”

Voters may have ignored this election because there were so few candidates.  Only one race was a contest; the other candidates were unopposed.  What’s happened to public debate, the mayor mused, and how does the city get more people to run for office?

Sanford said the CBJ Assembly will take up the issue of different voting methods again soon, because low voter turnout is a chronic problem that  comes up  just about every election.

Sica said other types of voting may not make a difference.

“They just need to be interested enough to take advantage of what we’ve got.”