More Las Crucens voted before Election Day this year than in past cycles, but if history is any indication, that doesn’t mean overall voter turnout will increase.
With a campaign season that lasts just a few weeks, the trend in Las Cruces in recent elections has been for progressives and conservatives to focus on turning out their most ardent supporters rather than engaging new or less-likely voters. That has contributed to a drop in voter turnout, said former District 4 City Councilor Steve Trowbridge.
“The inside game is you just go for your people and don’t try to raise any alarms,” Trowbridge said. “We’re not getting an airing of the issues and so, as a result, it’s not really a public decision-making process.”
Voting trends may back up Trowbridge’s assertion. Early voting has increased in every mayor’s race since 2003:
But overall voter turnout has dropped dramatically during that same time period:
Voters don’t see “a real strong contrast on issues” between the mayoral candidates, he said. The discourse in the mayoral race frames the conversation for council candidates and can hamper their efforts to excite voters, he said.
“Talking to people and going around, I don’t sense much excitement,” Trowbridge said.
Jeffrey Isbell has a different take. A political operative working to help elect conservative candidates in Tuesday’s election, Isbell predicted that a higher percentage of voters will turn out this year than the 18.86 percent who voted in 2011, the last time the mayor’s office was up for grabs.
Isbell said the massive spending on the election by independent groups will help voter turnout — as will the fact that incumbent Mayor Ken Miyagishima is spending tens of thousands of his own dollars on his re-election campaign.
“There is not one active voter in Las Cruces that can say they didn’t know an election was happening,” Isbell said. “It’s still won’t be a great turnout, but I would guess it will be higher than we’ve seen in recent municipal elections.”
Some 2,795 people cast ballots by the time early in-person voting wrapped up on Saturday, according to the City Clerk’s Office. The number of absentee voters isn’t final. But even without that total, the number of non-Election Day voters is already higher than the 2,671 people who voted early and absentee in 2011.
District 1 has the most early votes
The District 1 race between Eli Guzman and Kasandra Gandara is shaping up to be one of the most interesting on the ballot. That district had 622 early voters this year, according to the city clerk. That’s the highest number of any district in this election:
Citywide turnout may be low. But Angélica Rubio, who’s managing Gandara’s campaign, said she believes there is higher interest in District 1. She’s hopeful there will be increased turnout there.
In Las Cruces, Rubio said conservative and progressive groups alike haven’t invested in turning out new voters in recent elections. Gandara’s campaign is different, she said.
“People have intentionally strategized to just get out regular voters,” Rubio said. “Our approach has been to invite people who have never voted before, especially women.”
Progressives have dominated city politics since 2007. They’ve done it, Isbell believes, by effectively taking advantage “of the low voter turnout of low-key elections.” Those days “are over,” Isbell said. There’s a more active conservative counter to the progressive movement — and that’s why he believes voter turnout will be higher this time and in future local elections.
“That’s a great thing for the voters and ultimately our democracy, even if conservatives don’t always win,” Isbell said.
Guzman didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Lower voter turnout is a nationwide trend
Dropping voter turnout isn’t just a local issue, however. If a higher-than-usual percentage of Las Crucens vote in Tuesday’s election, that would buck local, state and national trends.
Only 8.24 percent of registered voters went to the polls in Albuquerque last month. That was the lowest turnout in decades in that city.
Last year’s midterm congressional elections saw the lowest turnout in 72 years at 36.3 percent. New Mexico was just above the national average in 2014, at about 40 percent. The United States trails almost all other developed nations in voter turnout.
In Las Cruces, elections have changed dramatically in recent times. When Trowbridge last ran for and won re-election, in 2003, he accepted no campaign donations and spent just $500 of his own money on the race.
In this election, two of the candidates for the District 4 seat Trowbridge used to hold had each raised five figures as of Oct. 19. Richard Hall had raised $13,068.32 and Jack Eakman had raised $12,016. Both also have independent groups spending money to help them.
In other words, while spending has skyrocketed in Las Cruces, turnout has plummeted. Candidates are spending lots more money per vote.
Trowbridge said city officials should make future election cycles longer so there is more opportunity to focus on issues and engage all voters.
Absent such a process, Trowbridge said, “I don’t see any general interest in the election.”