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Low turnout in off-year elections could open cities to new problems

FILE - In this May 28, 2020, file photo, mail-in primary election ballots are processed at the Chester County Voter Services office in West Chester, Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf's top election official said Friday, Aug. 14, that the administration had to take action after receiving a blunt warning from the U.S. Postal Service that it may be unable to deliver some mail-in ballots in the November presidential election by the deadline in state law. That warning precipitated Thursday night's filing in the state Supreme Court asking for an order to extend the deadline for mail-in ballots to be received in the Nov. 3 election when Pennsylvania will be a premier presidential battleground. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

SALT LAKE CITY — Cities across America — including here in Utah — hold their municipal elections in alternate years from the major, partisan general elections. The result is often a low voter turnout, and a political science professor from Brigham Young University argues it could leave cities open to undue influence from well-organized special interest groups.

Professor Adam Dynes’ study in American Political Science Review surveyed cities to determine whether city workers were paid higher wages than might be expected, given a conservative political climate. He determined that labor unions were apparently successful in influencing city officials, based on the low interest level and turnout in city elections.

“When you lower turnout,” Dynes told KSL Newsradio, “there’s opportunity for groups that are better organized to have a bigger impact.”

The head of one organization representing public employees in Utah, however, doesn’t think the timing or turnout of elections makes much difference in their work.

“Really, what we want to make sure is that public employees are keeping up with the private sector,” said Todd Losser, Executive Director of the Utah Public Employees Association.

Voter turnout has also been changing in Utah’s municipal elections with the arrival of vote-by-mail.

“Well, in Provo, where I’m at, turnout was like, 10% eight years ago. But once they started the mail-in ballots, turnout, I think, was almost, like, 33%,” Professor Dynes said.

Dynes says local governments are also the place where individual citizens can have the greatest influence.

“If you see things you’re not happy about, or you have ideas on how to improve things, reach out to your city councilors. Like, you can really have an impact.”

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