Tuesday’s election likely won’t draw many voters

Poll attendance historically low in municipal elections

Posted: Monday, October 02, 2006

If the past is any predictor of the future, fewer than one in three eligible voters in the Kenai Peninsula Borough will bother to head to the polls or submit absentee ballots in the Oct. 3 municipal election.

This is despite the fact the ballot includes two important propositions (one of them controversial), as well as the names of candidates competing for seats on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, Board of Education, and various city council and service area offices.

In the last four municipal elections (2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005), the best we did collectively as a democratically minded borough electorate was the 30.56 percent registered in 2002. Since then, turnout hasn’t reached even that disappointing level. Only 23.33 percent voted in 2003, 27.03 percent in 2004 and 28.82 percent last fall.

An analysis of voter turnout records available through the borough clerk’s office at the borough’s Web site, shows turnout inside borough cities generally mirrors boroughwide trends.

For instance, over the four previous municipal elections, Homer’s turnout (with its two precincts combined) hit a low of 22.2 percent in 2003 and a high of 34.2 percent in 2004.

Combining Kenai’s three precincts, that city was also lowest in 2003, with a 22.9-percent turnout, rising to a high of 26.6 percent in 2005.

Soldotna, meanwhile, registered its low in 2004 at 19.3 percent and its high last year at 25.2 percent.

Nikiski registered the highest voter turnout of all during the four-year stretch, 37.1 percent, in 2004, though the year before only 18.8 percent of voters went to the polls there.

The high mark in 2004 may be attributable to voter interest in a close race for an assembly seat in which incumbent Gary Superman won a narrow victory, and three local ballot measures — a proposed law enforcement service area (defeated), a move to truncate the power of the North Peninsula Recreational Service Area board (defeated), and a proposition to limit the amount the service area could commit to a capital project (passed).

The small, cross-inlet community of Tyonek chalked up the lowest turnout percentage of any community over the four years. Just eight of the eligible 121 voters (6.6 percent) there cast ballots in 2002. The best they’ve done since was the 10.4 percent registered in 2004, when 12 of 111 eligible voters bothered.

Tuesday’s municipal election may bring infrequent voters out of the woodwork. A pair of ballot propositions will impact borough finances over the next several years either way voters choose to vote.

Proposition 1 would authorize the borough to issue approximately $2.58 million in general obligation bonds for schools-related projects. The four projects have already had borough money appropriated to them and will be done regardless of the outcome. The issue is who ultimately foots the bills. A successful Proposition 1 opens the door for more than $1 million worth of guaranteed reimbursement from the state. Borough officials call this one “a no-brainer.”

Proposition 2 is much more complicated and has the potential to be confusing for voters not already fairly well versed in its history, nuances and the politics that surround it.

Suffice it to say, Proposition 2 is a referendum on a controversial ordinance passed by the assembly in June of last year that attempted to raise the sales tax to 3 percent, began applying that tax to packaged recreational sales on a per-person, per-day basis, and codified a mechanism for tapping the borough’s Land Trust Fund account in such a way that the corpus of the fund would continue to grow. The ordinance’s provisions are currently suspended pending the outcome of Tuesday’s election.

Prop 2 is complicated by the fact that the sales tax portion of the ordinance (Ordinance 2005-09) was rolled back by the success of the 2005 municipal ballot’s Proposition 5, which capped the sales tax at 2 percent. It is back before voters again because this year’s Proposition 2 made that essential.

Defeat of Prop 2 would have the effect of leaving in the assembly’s toolbox the ability to set the sales tax each year at budget time at whatever level it believes best for the borough, limited only by a 3 percent cap established by voters in 1964. Success would lock in the 2 percent sales tax cap for at least two years, and toss out other provisions of Ordinance 2005-09.

Sherry Biggs, Kenai Peninsula Borough Clerk, said that while historically the turnout for municipal elections has been pretty weak of late, the low percentages above aren’t entirely the fault of forgetful or uninterested voters.

In 2005, the state showed the borough with almost 38,000 voters, but not all are so-called “active” voters.

“They are registered, but have not been active in some time,” Biggs said.

The state does attempt to contact people who have not voted for long periods to determine if they are still residents. That includes sending out letters by registered mail. If those come back undeliverable, the state may make other attempts to find those folks.

“It’s a long process for the state to delete someone from the rolls,” Biggs said. “It often takes several years for them to truly remove someone.”

The point, Biggs said, is that “eligible voter numbers are most likely inflated.”

Still, even if the inflation were as high as 10 percent, voter turnout in peninsula precincts would remain fairly depressed.

Hal Spence can be reached at harold.spence@peninsulaclarion.com.

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