In the Benton County Special Election which concluded Tuesday, May 18, the total voter turnout was reported as 39.20% of eligible voters. This turnout, while quite low, is not uncommon for Benton County or Corvallis.
Benton’s last special election was November 5, 2019, in which City of Corvallis Ward 7 voters made decisions on a Council seat and a decision on a measure to establish a County Service District to support 911 call receiving and dispatch. In that election, the turnout was 38.31%. An even lower rate was seen in the larger May 2019 special election, which like our most recent election, included School Board positions.
The only special elections of the last decade which significantly break these trends were the special elections of January of 2018 with a turnout of 49.35%, November of 2015 with 46.14%, and May of 2015 with 46.03%. Of course, these numbers still don’t hold a candle to the County’s general election turnout rates of 75 – 85%.
So, what do higher-turnout special elections deal with?
The January 2018 special election ballot had only one measure, which dealt with assessments on low-income healthcare provision of funding. With nearly 70% of votes in favor of the assessments, it seems that the turnout may have been driven by a widespread passion for the measure.
The November 2015 election dealt with several measures, but the one which garnered the greatest total votes dealt with the provision of a bond to construct, staff and equip a new correctional facility. Four of the five arguments published in the Voters’ Pamphlet were in favor of the Jail Bond, but the measure was not passed. While 47.53% of voters were in favor of the bond, 52.47% were opposed.
Finally, the May 2015 election was similar to the 2021 special election in that it had many School Board seats up for election. However, unlike 2021, the ballot also contained a very popular measure on which nearly every participating voter voted. The measure, which prohibited corporations and the government from using genetically engineered organisms in agriculture, was approved by a 72.41% majority.
Popular or polarizing candidates and measures will tend to make people more invested in an election. But why does it matter if elections which are less popular or non-polarizing get less attention?
Frankly, it’s a matter of public involvement. The idea of a democracy is that the most widely popular decision is the one which best serves the community. Likewise, the School Board candidates with the most widely agreed-upon ideals would be the ones to make decisions which will shape future generations.
In some sense, when voter turnout is around 40%, each individual’s vote counts as two and a half people’s votes. So the question simply becomes: as a society, are we okay with the invested voters having 250% as loud a voice as they would under pure democracy?