Election official: Government shutdown may harm municipal incumbents

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 1:59 PM

Bryon Saxton, Mitch Shaw, Standard-Examiner Staff

FARMINGTON — Local election officials are concerned the federal government shutdown could cause voter apathy and an unfair bias against incumbents at the polls this fall, but experts say there shouldn’t be too much to worry about.

Local election staffs have been concerned for the past few years with the low voter turnout, and they hope the federal government shutdown will not further complicate their efforts to get out the vote for the Nov. 5 municipal general election, said Davis County Clerk/Auditor Steve Rawlings.

Although the municipal elections, where mayors and council members are to be elected to office, are in no way related to any vote for a federal candidate, “the federal government shutting down may create emotions that may change voting habits,” Rawlings told the Standard-Examiner.

The recent shutdown may put people in a mindset of “what is the use?” despite the best efforts of county and state election officials to get a higher percentage of registered voters out to the polls, he said.

On average, about 11 percent of all registered voters in Davis County cast ballots in the Aug. 13 primary.

But there may be a segment of voters so disgruntled with how government is operating that they may go to the polls with the mindset of removing anyone currently holding political office, Rawlings said.

In a sense, a vote made based on the blame game, he said.

There is the possibility of voters either voting every incumbent out or just not casting ballots in the future, said Weber County Clerk/Auditor Ricky Hatch.

“I think both of those possibilities have merit,” he said of the two scenarios Rawlings shared.

“But I don’t think (the shutdown) will have a dramatic impact either way. It could impact voter turnout from 1 to 3 percentage points,” said Hatch, and that could impact the tighter municipal contest.

There are also those voters, Hatch said, who may think that government is “a mess” and, as a result, not vote at all.

“When they say ‘government,’ they are lumping in every level,” Hatch said of voter frustration.

The hope is that voters, through education and engagement in the process, will not take their frustrations out on the local candidates, he said.

Hatch said his goal this election, as with any election, is to remove any worries voters might have regarding the election process and to present Weber County residents “a free and fair election.”

Leah Murray, an associate professor of political science at Weber State University, doesn’t think the government shutdown will impact local elections very much, if at all.

Even if the theory of voters taking their federal government frustrations out on local incumbents were true, it wouldn’t tip the scales in any significant way, she said.

Generally, people always have a negative opinion of incumbents, except when it’s their own, Murray said, adding that people vote for their own incumbents about 98 percent of the time.

“The general rule is that we always think incumbents are a problem, but we like our own guys,” she said.

As an example, Murray specifically mentioned that, while people in Congressional Rep. Rob Bishop’s district typically have a negative opinion of Congress overall, they like Bishop and continue to vote him into office.

Murray also said the chaos in Washington likely won’t induce any voter apathy either.

She said high-profile political issues and events, like the government shutdown, usually drive voters to the polls, not the opposite.

“The sexier politics are, the more people will vote,” she said.

But Murray also noted that local elections usually have low voter turnouts, “especially in a year like this, when there are no national races.”

Derek Monson, director of public policy at the Utah-based Sutherland Institute, had similar thoughts.

“First of all, I’ll say that anything is possible,” Monson said of the shutdown affecting local races. “But just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, and I don’t think it’s going to happen in this case.”

He said the only possible impact he could think of was if the shutdown created a specific issue in a certain city or county and elected officials were expected to find a resolution.

“If the shutdown had a direct impact on a certain municipality and local officials had to do something to alleviate the impacts, then I guess that could have an impact,” he said. “But even that is probably a stretch.”

Monson said the shutdown won’t drive voter turnout in either direction and he thinks that the small number of people who do tend to vote in local elections are politically well-versed enough to separate federal and local politics.

“I just don’t think people are going to connect the shutdown to local politics. I think it’s pretty well understood that it’s a federal issue.”

But one Box Elder County official says the federal government shutdown could reflect negatively on local office holders despite the fact they have nothing to do with the decisions being made in Washington, D.C.

“It is really making it hard on the local communities,” Box Elder County Commissioner LuAnn Adams said of the shutdown.

“And then we (local elected leaders) get the blame for this,” she said of the national park closures and job furloughs that have resulted from the shutdown.

“It is a hard time to be an elected official of any kind. The public is upset.”

Contact reporter Mitch Shaw at 801-625-4233 or mishaw@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchshaw23.

Contact reporter Bryon Saxton at 801-625-4244 or bsaxton@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @BryonSaxton.

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