Who Gives a Crap?

Why you probably won't care about this year's city election—and why you'll care even less about nonpartisan elections

If history is any guide, most Tucsonans are not going to give a crap about this year's city elections.

In the two most recent city elections (in 2007 and 2005), roughly one in four Tucsonans came out to vote in the November general election. In 2003, it got all the way up to four out of 10. Bob Walkup won the mayor's race two years ago by capturing 45,543 votes—in a city of roughly 525,000 people.

Want to know how boring voters find city elections? One of the candidates running for the council this year has never voted in one.

Republican Shaun McClusky, who is seeking the southside Ward 5 seat, says he didn't even know he could vote for candidates outside of his ward, because Tucson has citywide council elections.

McClusky has only voted three times in the 10 years he's lived in Tucson: in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 general elections for state and federal candidates. If he votes for himself on Sept. 1, it'll be the first time he's voted in a primary race since registering to vote in Arizona.

McClusky hasn't voted in bond elections or on other special ballot issues, because he didn't know they were going on, he says. "It's never been very well-publicized in any of the media that I pay attention to."

His opponent in the Ward 5 Republican primary, Judith Gomez, has likewise sat out primaries and special elections, but she did vote in one city general election, in 2005. She also voted in the general elections in 2004 and 2006, but skipped last year's presidential election.

Gomez, 27, didn't vote because she was caught up in the "confusion of youth" and couldn't decide whether she should go with the Republicans or the Democrats, she says. "I didn't know where I stood."

The bottom line: Neither McClusky or Gomez found it worth their while to study the issues well enough to make an informed decision at the ballot.

But—other than the embarrassing fact that they now want to persuade us that they're ready to take the reins of a vast bureaucracy—both candidates are typical Tucsonans.

Those low turnout numbers tell us that many citizens—if they're even registered to vote in the first place—do a calculation in the back of their heads: They measure the amount of time that it would take them to understand the intricacies of local politics, and then compare that to the amount of difference a single vote makes. Finally, they decide that the investment of their valuable time has almost no payoff: They have better things to do than get caught up in the details of redeveloping downtown, mastering the revenue projections from tax-increment financing districts, and creating a sliding-fee scale for pottery classes.

The political scientists have a name for this: rational ignorance.

"Voters have very little reason or incentive to learn very much about politics," says David Schleicher, a law professor at George Mason University who studies the implications of rational ignorance. "It doesn't affect your day-to-day life. The odds that your vote is going to matter in an election are very small. This is not to say that voters are incapable of learning about politics. It's just that it doesn't make a lot of sense to become very informed about politics."

In other words: If you're like most Tucsonans, you couldn't care less about what the City Council is up to or who is running for office this year.

After all, it's not as if it's difficult to vote. The city mails several generic announcements that the election is coming up, and even invites voters to order a mail-in ballot so that people can vote from the comfort of their kitchen table.

But learning enough to cast an informed ballot—delving into candidates and issues—costs a person a certain amount of time.

"People are busy," Schleicher says. "They might rather be watching the Cardinals. Or they have to work."

If you think Tucson's numbers are bad, take a look at Phoenix: In the 2007 mayoral race, less than 19 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.

Schleicher says that's because rational ignorance is multiplied when a city institutes nonpartisan elections.

"In partisan urban elections, voters know very little," Schleicher says. "In nonpartisan elections, they know absolutely nothing, on average."

Now we're about to dig into what the political scientists call a "process issue," which means that if you're a typical rationally ignorant voter who has stuck with this story this far, you're probably going to get really bored with this next part.

Schleicher explains that political parties essentially function as brands, which "allows us to overcome the lack of information we have about politics. Removing the brands is like if you went to buy soda (and) there were no labels on the bottles, and you just saw a bunch of brown liquids. You'd say: 'Oh my god, how can I pick which soda to drink?'"

State Sen. Jonathan Paton thinks it's time we shake up our soda pop, because, as he puts it, city government "couldn't get any worse." A Republican whose district includes Tucson's eastside, Paton has introduced legislation at the Capitol to prohibit cities and towns from having partisan elections.

Senate Bill 1123 is aimed squarely at Tucson, which is the only city in Arizona to still have partisan elections. The legislation cleared the Arizona Senate last week on a 17-11 vote and is among the many bills moving through the House of Representatives.

Paton's legislation would also require cities to elect council members from within their own wards rather than in citywide votes. In Tucson's system, candidates now run within their wards in the partisan primaries and then run citywide in the general election.

Paton gives the standard spin from supporters of nonpartisan elections: "I don't believe that we need partisan races in order to get our potholes fixed or get our city patrolled by the police. I don't think it makes that much of a difference."

Jeff Rogers, the chair of the Pima County Democratic Party, begs to differ. As he points out, in the battle over this year's city budget, Democrats chose to increase utility taxes and preserve social programs. He says Republicans might have opposed tax increases and cut those programs.

Rogers says that Paton wants to change the system because Republicans have been getting clobbered in recent years. Tucson is home to roughly 106,000 Democrats, 59,000 Republicans, and 69,000 independents and third-party members. Since all the council candidates run citywide, Democrats have a dominating advantage in council races, especially given the current state of the Republican brand.

"Republicans don't believe they will ever control the City Council unless the system changes," Rogers says.

Paton says he's not sure that Republicans will fare better if the city is forced to move to a nonpartisan system. While acknowledging that Democrats have an obvious advantage, he points out that GOP candidates have won recent races when moderate Republicans have faced leftist Democrats. One common strategy has been to take advantage of low turnout on the Democratic-heavy south and west sides by running aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts in GOP strongholds on the eastside.

"I don't think that Republicans are going to get elected as a result of this," Paton says. "I think you might get more centrist Democrats. If I wanted to get more Republicans on the council, I would have looked at history and said, 'You know, maybe we should keep this citywide general system, because that's how we got Republicans elected in the past.' I've taken a lot of shots from my own party for wanting to get rid of it."

Paton argues that the real game-changer will be the different type of candidates who may emerge from the primary. Instead of the current system of having Democrats competing against Democrats for Democratic voters, and Republicans competing against Republicans for Republican voters, all the candidates would run in a single primary, competing for the support of all ward voters.

In a typical nonpartisan system, if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in a primary, the two candidates who get the most votes advance to the general election.

"I think what happens now, because Democrats pretty much dominate the city, is you have to win over the leftist fringe in the primary in your ward, and that's pretty much the election," Paton says. "Maybe it doesn't always work that way, but I think that's the trend."

However, there's ample evidence to disprove Paton's assumption. In recent Democratic primaries in Tucson, organization, money and name ID have counted for more than ideology. And Paton concedes that Democratic candidates perceived as too liberal—or otherwise flawed—have lost general elections to moderate Republicans who have captured independent and crossover Democratic votes.

Rogers says that the Pima County Democratic Party stands ready to support Democratic candidates in a nonpartisan environment, but he admits the party couldn't wade into a primary in the likely event that two or more Democrats were running. And given that two Democrats could conceivably get the most votes in a primary, with neither one capturing 50 percent of the vote, they could end up running against each other in the general election, which means the party would have to sit out the election.

Paton says changing the political playing field would mean that candidates would need to be able to appeal to a different constituency to win a primary.

"The people who are running would have to appeal to more than that narrow constituency that comes out for (partisan) primaries, and have to appeal to a broad cross-section across the ward," Paton says. "And if you have ward-only elections, you're going to be more representative of your ward."

Rogers agrees that ward-only elections are, in general, more fair, although he'd like to see two at-large seats added to the council to prevent members from becoming too parochial. But in general, he falls back on a local-control argument: "I think the voters of Tucson should decide it, and not the Arizona Legislature."

That's not an argument that's likely to carry much weight with the current crop of state lawmakers, especially since Tucson is out of step with all the other cities in the state—and many others across the country.

Schleicher explains that the movement to implement nonpartisan elections began as a reform to dismantle party-machine politics in big cities. But in a world of rational ignorance, the end result is that people are even more disengaged from the political process. Those who do vote make decisions based on what they can glean from the ballot—maybe they vote for a candidate because she's a woman, or he's got a Hispanic name.

"That's not a very good way to pick a government," says Schleicher. "Nonpartisan elections are probably the worst electoral innovation of the 20th century, because they removed so much information from politics."