Low voter turnout in Clark County municipal elections puzzles officials

Four cities paid Clark County hundreds of thousands of dollars to run municipal elections this year — and less than 10 percent of the electorate participated.

Time after time, the cities see paltry turnout. And while some have called for syncing city elections with Clark County’s, which could provide considerable savings, there hasn’t been enough support to make that move.

“I believe financially, we should do the county cycle, not our own cycle,” Las Vegas Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian said.

City officials in Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas have discussed making that move in recent years, but none has pulled the trigger. Mesquite, Reno and Sparks have synced municipal elections with their counties, but the Clark County cities aren’t outliers when it comes to off-year election cycles. Cities large and small across the country do the same thing.

Changing the date of the election would draw more votes, but there is a tradeoff, said Las Vegas Councilman Bob Coffin.

“Turnout would increase,” he said. “But would the electorate be focused on the city issues? That’s a question.”

Last fall, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee raised the idea to move municipal elections to align with national and statewide races. The shift, Lee said, would have decreased costs and increased voter participation in North Las Vegas.

His four colleagues on the City Council shot down the idea in December.

Councilwoman Anita Wood said then that she was concerned that the city’s races would be placed near the bottom of a crowded ballot, below higher profile races and even judges seats.

Increasing turnout

A collective 8.7 percent of registered voters in Clark County cast ballots in Tuesday’s municipal elections, according to unofficial county results.

“It’s really embarrassing to have so much money and so much at stake and have so few people show up,” said state Sen. Tick Segerblom, who helped pass a 2011 Assembly bill that allows cities to coordinate their elections with state contests.

Not all registered voters received ballots, however. North Las Vegas had only two council races in the April primary, and one remained on Tuesday. That meant only voters in Ward 3 could vote, but turnout figures take into account all registered voters. Henderson also had only one council ward on the primary ballot.

In Las Vegas, the only at-large position on Tuesday’s ballot was a municipal judge race. In the primary, only voters in the city’s three even-numbered council wards had anything other than judge contests on their ballots.

Of the four cities, Las Vegas saw the most voters, but the lowest ratio — 7.6 percent — of ballots cast. Boulder City, the smallest of the bunch, had the largest share — the 4,403 general election voters are 42 percent of registered voters. Boulder City had two at-large council seats up for grabs.

Finding savings

Last year, Las Vegas and Clark County entered into an agreement that calls for the city to pay the county a flat fee of up to $500,000 for off-year elections.

The price, down from $1.47 million during the city’s last election, came as part of the sweeping agreement that also called for the city to waive nearly $5 million in fire protection fees from a decades-old deal. In the event of a recall or special election, the city will pay the county the actual cost to conduct the election.

Las Vegas and North Las Vegas also cut election costs by moving from polling places to voting centers. Las Vegas previously staffed 75 polling places but used 15 voting centers in the primary and general elections. The move was for cost savings and convenience. The centers allow voters to cast their ballots at the most convenient location, not an assigned one.

Henderson’s Charter Review Committee has studied a possible move to sync up with county elections twice, and it didn’t recommend a change, Mayor-elect Debra March said.

City officials there do want a law to allow for the use of mail elections for municipal contests, but doing so would require amending the city charter or action by the Nevada Legislature.

“I support giving us the option to use vote by mail for Henderson elections,” March said.

Contact Jamie Munks at jmunks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0340. Follow @JamieMunksRJ on Twitter. Staff writers Ben Botkin, Art Marroquin and Sandy Lopez contributed to this report.

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