Local election timing could alter outcomes

Man early voting
A Gainesville man arrives at the Reitz Union to vote early. (Photo by Megan V. Winslow)

Tuesday will be the first time Gainesville’s non-partisan elections will take place the same day as the statewide party primaries, and a UF professor says syncing the two could affect the outcomes of future city elections. 

Professor Daniel A. Smith, chair of UF’s political science department, said in an interview that while the city’s change will increase voter turnout, pairing the municipal elections with partisan primaries means the city elections will be more closely tied to other political concerns.  

“You’re going to have people [voting in the primary] who are brought in because of politics, rather than just local elections,” he said. “They’re interested more in state and national issues as opposed to local affairs.” 

Smith, whose research specialty is in state and local politics with a focus on voting and elections, said a big boost to raw turnout numbers also doesn’t guarantee a similar increase in votes in city elections because some primary voters who are more interested in state and national politics may simply skip local races. 

Increasing turnout 

The charter amendment to move Gainesville’s municipal elections passed with slightly more than 70% of the vote in 2018. The amendment changed the commission and mayoral terms from three years to four years and moved the city elections from a once-a-year cycle to a once-every-two-years cycle. 

Commissioner Harvey Ward

It also matched the timing of the municipal elections with that of the August state primaries. The Gainesville City Commission initiated the changes to save the city money by eliminating stand-alone elections and cutting the frequency of elections in half, according to city records. 

The commission also was interested in increasing voter participation in municipal elections.  

“That’s simple as it gets: More people vote in August,” Commissioner Harvey Ward said during one of the initial discussions of the amendment. “Two or three times as many people vote in August in this community as vote in March.” 

In 2017 and 2018 when the amendment was developed, for example, between 11.8% and 13.5% of residents voted in the Gainesville regular elections in March, while the August 2018 primary turnout was 28.6%.  

And that gap has widened in recent elections. In 2020, the primary saw 32.9% turnout, but the last stand-alone city election in 2021 drew just 10.6% of registered voters.  

Since 2010, the only times Gainesville’s general election numbers rose above 15% was when it was held at the same time as the U.S. presidential preference primary.  

In 2016, municipal election turnout spiked to 44.36%—when both the Democrats and Republicans had competitive races for the presidential nominations. 

The ability of competitive partisan races to drive turnout for a particular party in a primary election is at the heart of how moving the municipal elections to August could influence the outcomes of a city election beyond just increasing turnout. 

Smith said that municipal election voters are often different from primary voters.  

In Gainesville, municipal voters often fall in the category of super voter, Smith said. 

“The super voters tend to be strong partisans, and they vote in every election—general elections down to these primary elections,” Smith said. 

While super voters also vote in primaries, other primary voters decide to participate based on the competitiveness of state- or national-level partisan primaries. 

Professor Daniel A. Smith

For example, Smith said this year Democrats, who have a competitive primary for governor, may be more motivated to vote in the August primaries than Republican voters, whose top-of-the-ticket races, like governor and U.S. senate, are already set. 

But which party has competitive races changes with the political season, and in future elections, it may be that Republicans have more motivation to vote in a primary, which could, in turn, shift the types of voters in the Gainesville municipal election. 

“It’s going to look completely different in 2026 when there’s a municipal election,” Smith said. “You’re going to have all kinds of Republicans buy in for the primary election in August, and that’s going to bring out 20 to 30% of Republican voters who are registered in Gainesville.” 

Alachua County and Gainesville are more heavily Democratic—almost 86,000 Democrats compared to 48,000 Republicans and 45,000 who are not registered for either party—and heavy turnout among Republicans for a statewide race could shift support at the city level, Smith said. 

In 2021, fewer than 10,000 total voters turned out for two municipal races—one of which was a citywide at-large seat—and current Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker beat then-incumbent Gigi Simmons in District 1 by fewer than 120 votes. 

These small margins of voters and victories underscore how a shift in partisan primary voters could alter the outcomes of races. 

“That’s one of the problems that the city commission should have been thinking about when they were pushing for this, because the local election [can be] suddenly co-opted by national politics,” Smith said. 

In 2017, former City Commissioner Harvey Budd supported putting the charter amendment on the ballot so voters could decide whether to move the election, but he told his fellow commissioners at the time he wasn’t sure if he thought it was a good decision. 

“We’re now making them partisan elections,” Budd said during deliberations. “The moment we move them to August, they become partisan elections versus nonpartisan elections. There’s a lot to this equation. It isn’t cut and dried.” 

But whether the partisan primary voters can or will alter municipal elections may not depend on the total number of voters, but on whether those voters make selections in all the races. Smith said that the roll-off rate for city elections, which is the number of voters who make choices at the top of the ticket but skip races lower on the ballots, could also influence municipal outcomes. 

All Gainesville races and all the Alachua County School Board races are non-partisan, which means they are more likely to have a higher roll-off rate.  

Voters who don’t have a lot of information about an election look for cues on the ballot, like party affiliation, to make their decisions, Smith said. In non-partisan races, the low-information voters are missing the cues that help them make their selections, so they are more likely to simply skip those races. 

“These low-information voters don’t have information down ballot, … and one of the things that you do when you don’t have information is you abstain, you don’t vote in those local races that don’t have the party cue,” Smith said. 

Photo by Megan V. Winslow
Photo by Megan V. Winslow

It’s too early to tell how combining the municipal elections with the statewide primary election might have changed the turnout or the types of people voting in the 2022 elections. Smith said that he won’t know what kind of effect moving the election will have until he looks at the precinct-by-precinct breakdowns, which the elections office generally doesn’t release until October or November. 

However, with two days left in early in-person voting and election day voting still to come, more people have already cast ballots countywide than in the last city election. 

As of Friday morning, approximately 20,000 of Alachua County’s 179,000 registered voters had voted either by mail or during early in-person voting, according to the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections turnout tracker.  

The Alachua County Supervisor of Elections office mailed around 45,000 vote-by-mail ballots for the primary, said spokesperson Aaron Klein. Approximately a third of those vote-by-mail ballots, which are due by 7 p.m. on Aug. 23, have already been returned. 

“We’re hopeful that that folks who are living in the city of Gainesville will turn out in greater numbers because they have more contests to vote on than perhaps they’re used to,” Klein said. “There’s something on the ballot for everyone to vote on in this election.” 

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