Publisher’s Position: Time for a Change in Knoxville City Election Cycle

By Steve Hunley

With Mayor Madeline Rogero on the ballot seeking a second term, as well as three At-Large City Council members and Second District Councilman Mark Campen running, less than 3,500 people came out to vote.  I believe I read somewhere there are 105,000 folks registered to vote in the City of Knoxville; just how many people there are eligible to vote and haven’t even bothered to register is anybody’s guess.  Last week’s election turnout was abysmal with only approximately 4% of registered voters participating.

Neither Mayor Rogero nor the members of the Knoxville City Council, with perhaps one exception, can run again due to term limits.  It is incumbent upon the incumbents to wrestle with the problem of changing the city’s election cycle to increase participation.

For decades, the trajectory of participation in city elections has been spiraling ever downward.  It has reached truly embarrassing proportions.  It is humiliating to think the Mayor of Knoxville would receive less than 3500 votes.

Councilman Mark Campen led the first primary with almost 67% of the vote, yet in terms of actual numbers, that constituted only 229 people voting for him.  Paul Bonovich will face incumbent Finbarr Saunders in November; Saunders led the first primary with almost 65% of the vote.  Bonovich won less than 13% of the vote, tallying 560 votes to 2772 votes for Saunders.  When a candidate wins 65% of the vote, that candidate should be elected.

It costs money to have an election.  Workers must be hired to man the polling precincts and from what I understand, each election costs taxpayers something like $150,000.  The total cost for the city election will be about $300,000 and I will be absolutely shocked if more people come out to vote in November than showed up in September.

When Madeline Rogero was first elected mayor, every mayoral candidate attended countless candidate forums.  Some argued the all-too numerous candidate forums would encourage and heighten voter participation.  Reporters began largely ignoring the endless forums because the candidates basically kept repeating their platforms and oftentimes were asked the same questions, with slight variations.  It seemed every neighborhood felt the need to sponsor its own forum.  With the mayoral and council candidates attending the repetitive forums, press attention fell over and coverage of the campaigns did not increase.  Clearly, the forums neither encouraged nor heightened voter participation.

It can be argued once Rogero and half the Council can no longer run, voter interest will spike; it will likely increase, but not by much.  There are inherent dangers in the system as it currently exists.  The notion a candidate for City Council, after winning more than 60% of the vote, has to continue to raise and spend money for a second election that will be less than sparsely attended is ridiculous.  I realize that is a peculiar notion for a newspaper publisher to take, especially as newspapers of every kind rely on advertising to stay in business, but that doesn’t alter the truth.

Low voter turnout increases the influence of special interest groups, all of whom help to fund campaigns and extract promises for their own point of view or benefit.

The day after the election, the News-Sentinel was scolding about how the police department’s review committee needed improvement and further review.  That was what was outmoded and needed to be fixed after an election in which fewer than 3500 people voted?  Clearly, it is time for City of Knoxville officials to seriously address changing the election cycle.  That is the only thing that is going to keep a future mayor from being elected by 1000 votes.

All the arguments against changing the election cycle from an off-year to a regular election cycle are drivel.  City voters aren’t going to be confused with county elections or state elections.  Voters aren’t confused in August in voting for county offices while at the same time selecting nominees in state elections.  Next year local primaries will be held in conjunction with the presidential preference primary.  That isn’t going to cause folks to be befuddled and confused; if anything, it will increase voter turnout and participation.

Frankly, there are no good reasons not to change the City of Knoxville elections from the off-year.  For those city officials who hem and haw and try to explain just why it’s a good thing to continue to allow a handful of people select every elected official in the City of Knoxville, remember those arguments are merely excuses.  Hidden inside those excuses is something as simple as plain self-interest.

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