Patterns emerge in municipal elections

Turnout historically higher in some city wards

Turnout for last week's municipal election managed to exceed predictions, though broken down by ward and precinct, clear patterns emerge.

While Cole County overall saw a roughly 13 percent voter turnout, slightly more than County Clerk Steve Korsmeyer had predicted, some precincts saw a turnout as low as 5 percent. And three of the contested Jefferson City Council races were decided with a difference between the winning and losing candidates being less than 200 votes.

Edith Vogel, who lost the Ward 2 Jefferson City Council race Tuesday night by 100 votes, said she had no qualms about her campaign, but the ward has always struggled with voter turnout.

"Historically voter turnout is awful, just awful," Vogel said, noting she thinks it stems from being an older neighborhood with a lot of businesses, government offices mixed with residential. "Like here on the south side, there's just not a lot of stability with people that live here."

Vogel said she likely wouldn't run for office in Ward 2 again, as the ward itself has changed since her first run for City Council in 1999.

"The ward is too difficult to read anymore," Vogel said.

Mark Schreiber, who won re-election to his 5th Ward Jefferson City Council seat by 87 votes, said he likely benefited from being an incumbent.

"It never hurts you when you've been around for a long period of time and you've served a couple of terms, and as long as you haven't made too many people unhappy and you respond to people," Schreiber said. "I do think that makes a degree of difference."

Alicia Edwards, who lost to Schreiber on Tuesday night, said she and her fiance have been involved in trying to improve voter registration rates since before she decided to run for council. It was during a previous election, when a voter registration drive was held at Building Community Bridges, that Edwards' fiance discovered he was eligible to register, even though he had a criminal background.

"That sparked an interest in him like no other, and he started having voter registration drives at every food pantry and every BCB event," Edwards said. "So when I decided to run, I pushed it even harder."

But the real challenge, Edwards said, is educating the low- income community on the importance of voting in local elections.

"They're not concerned with voting, they're concerned with putting food on the table and paying their bills," Edwards said, adding the need then is to educate those people on how local elections affect their daily lives.

Scott Spencer, who won election to the Ward 3 Jefferson City Council seat Tuesday night by 180 votes, said issues like infrastructure and public safety are what drive people to the polls in many instances.

For his particular race, while both of those issues were often brought up as he campaigned, Spencer said what seemed to resonate most with voters was the concerns he expressed about the Jefferson City Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department continuing to receive funds from the capital improvement sales tax when it has its own dedicated sales tax for funding.

"I took a risk on that," Spencer said. "And that really resonated with the voters; they would bring that up with me."

Korsmeyer said during his time in office he has found the only real voting trend in municipal elections is when there is a race or tax that has generated interest among voters you can expect a large turnout. The same can also be said if there are few contested races or there are no tax measures to decide then the voter turnout will be small.

A prime example of this can be seen in the voter turnout records from Korsmeyer's office for the April 2017 municipal elections. That was the year Jefferson City area voters approved funding for a second public high school (Capital City) and renovation of the existing high school.

Proposition J, which asked for a 65-cent tax levy increase to fund a $130 million bond issue, got 62.4 percent approval; Proposition C, which asked for a 45-cent operating levy increase - 25 cents to cover the operating costs of a second high school and 20 cents to cover needs within the existing school system - got 60.4 percent approval.

The 32.2 percent total voter turnout for the election exceeded Korsmeyer's projection.

"Normally you only get 10 percent turnout in a municipal, but that election was an exception due to the interest over the school measure," Korsmeyer said.

In some precincts in that election, the voter turnout was over 40 percent, with Ward 3/Precinct 1 having the highest turnout at 49.24 percent.

In this year's municipal election, Korsmeyer had predicted a 10 percent turnout, but it ended up at 13 percent.

"We had council races in four of the five precincts in Jefferson City and you had the half-cent sales tax renewal question on the ballot, so all that got more people out to vote," Korsmeyer said.

Figures dating back to 2016 show voters in all three precincts of Ward 3 in Jefferson City consistently came out to vote with the only downturn occurring in 2020, when the municipal elections were moved from April to June due to the COVID pandemic.

"The polling locations in this area includes St. Joseph's Cathedral, Wesley United Methodist Church and the Masonic Lodge," Korsmeyer said. "It's all west and these are older, established neighborhoods, like along Boonville Road, where people vote all the time. If you had to go knock on doors for an issue, that probably would be a good place to go."

Spencer said it was amazing to see the higher turnout in Ward 3, and it says a lot about the residents there.

"I think it really sends a message to City Hall that this 3rd Ward, they are engaged with the issues and they're concerned and they want to have a voice in the direction of how we move forward," Spencer said.

Vogel said the combination of Ward 3 having a large population and there being a competitive race between two very different candidates led to voters recognizing its importance.

"That was a very important race, and I think the voters knew that, and they came out in that ward," Vogel said.

While everyone agrees turnout needs to be increased, no one is quite sure of how to accomplish that.

"Get out and vote, get out and vote, how many times have you got to tell people that," Vogel said. "I'm disappointed that the people did not get out and vote. Your life depends on your city government, you can't depend on the feds, you can't depend on Washington, D.C., you have to be comfortable with your local government, and I think that's important."

Edwards said she plans to continue her efforts to get more people registered to vote and interested in local elections, especially people in low income neighborhoods.

"I'm just going to keep going," Edwards said. "I'll do anything to make sure everyone's voice is heard."

Spencer said local elections are the ones where one vote can truly make a difference. If area leaders can help get the community more engaged and really emphasize "the fact that your voice does matter and we need to hear your voice," then turnout can only increase, he said.

And for those who still don't vote, Vogel has a message: "If you don't vote, then don't complain.