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How low voter turnout impacts politics in Milwaukee

Residents vote at a polling place in the Midtown neighborhood on October 20, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Residents vote at a polling place in the Midtown neighborhood on October 20, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Milwaukeeans will head to the polls to vote on who will become the city’s next mayor, but the election is unlikely to get high turnout. In the primary last month, voter turnout was the lowest it had been in the last four elections. Over the past couple decades, voter turnout in mayoral elections has been around 35% for registered voters. It wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to be.

Phil Rocco, political science associate professor at Marquette University, wrote about this issue for the Recombobulation Area, comparing historical voter turnout to what we see today.

"I think if you look not just at Milwaukee, but at cities really across the country, turnout in local elections, including for the top local official — the mayor, is far worse than turnout in national elections for president and congress in Milwaukee. This is pretty representative of big cities across the country," Rocco explains.

However in the 1930s and 1940s, he says it was not uncommon to see turnout over 80% for local elections. And, this wasn't just for citywide, it was spread across all of the different aldermanic districts as well.

So what changed? Rocco points to the role traditional party organizations and unions used to play in organizing people and the civic culture they created. While today, voters might think of elections as being a bit more obscure and harder to learn about.

A result of this low voter turnout, Rocco says, is that those who are elected are less responsive to the full potential electorate.

"There's certainly an impact when voters are highly alienated from politics. They don't feel like it matters in their lives. They're not participating in it. Elected officials might hear from different people and they might feel an incentive not to be responsive to people who they perceive as not significant in deciding their election," he says.

As for ways to help increase voter turnout, Rocco points to organizations like Voces De La Frontera as an example of an organization mobilizing working class voters in the way older organizations did before.

Another suggestion Rocco makes is in the timing of elections and structure them in a way that invites people in the door. And, he says make sure there are adequate sources covering local politics.

"I think really investing in informational campaigns, ... it's really not only a job for civil society organizations and the media, but I think if you look at states like California, where there are actually voter guides that give people a sense of who the candidates are and they're sent to really everyone, we could remind people that there are local elections and they do matter in a more systematic way," says Rocco.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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