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Odd-year election voter turnout low; will trend continue?

With no presidential race, no congressional contest and no state offices up for grabs, candidates for the St. Paul Park City Council and the District 833 School Board had the ballot to themselves when voters went to the polls Tuesday.

Recent election data shows that in years with no other major races driving the public to the polls, those voters who show up to help choose key city and education decision-makers are in small company.

In 2009 -- the last time voters went to the polls to decide St. Paul Park and District 833 races -- voter turnout was very low: just 201 ballots were cast in that year's uncontested St. Paul Park City Council contest, or roughly 7 percent of registered voters in the city of 5,300.

Turnout for that year's School Board races was even lower. Just over 3,400 ballots were cast out of nearly 55,000 registered voters across the South Washington County School District. District 833 races saw a higher turnout in 2007 -- 18 percent -- when a school levy measure also was on the ballot.

It's a trend that has shown up in prior years, too. For St. Paul Park's 2007 council elections, 19 percent of registered voters -- 566 people -- participated. In 2005, roughly 21 percent cast ballots.

In 2003, the last time there was a contested St. Paul Park mayoral race, turnout was 39 percent.

Those turnouts compare with far higher numbers in even-year elections that include state, federal and other races: Election Day last year saw 57.5 percent voter turnout at St. Paul Park's four polling places. The 2008 presidential election drew more than 76 percent of the city's registered voters to the polls. And the 2006 elections featured turnout of more than 62 percent -- the lowest in recent even-year elections, but still 1,700 more votes cast than in the 2009 city election.

A majority of St. Paul Park and District 833 leaders prefer the odd-year elections. There has been no push from city officials to move elections to the higher-turnout even years.

"I don't think there's a lot of desire to switch," said St. Paul Park Mayor John Hunziker, who faced off against local businessman Keith Franke for re-election this year. "Odd-year elections have been in St. Paul Park as long as ever, I guess."

The lack of a contentious issue has kept St. Paul Park voters away from the polls, he said, not necessarily the city's odd-year schedule.

The District 833 School Board debated switching to an even-year election earlier this year at the request of board member Jim Gelbmann, who was unsuccessful in convincing a majority of board members to support switching the election year.

Fellow board member Ron Kath said recently that school candidates get more exposure if they run in odd-year elections. Also, he said, voters in odd-year elections tend to know more about who they are voting for.

"I don't get hung up on the (turnout) numbers part," he said. "It's more about the educated voter coming to vote."

Kath and Gelbmann both sought re-election on Tuesday's ballot.

Cottage Grove began marrying its city elections to federal and state ones in 1992; Newport made the switch in the late-'90s. Ryan Schroeder, Cottage Grove's city administrator since 1998, said the argument for odd-year elections is that alongside congressional or presidential elections, city contests can get shuffled to the bottom of the ballot, out of the consciousness of most voters.

But an election held in traditional even years -- alongside more prominent races that draw larger numbers to the polls -- means cities and school boards get "a more representative election," he said. "In an odd year, the rationale is you're the only thing going."

St. Paul Park City Council member Jeff Swenson --- re-elected to a second, four-year term in 2009 -- said he favors moving the city's elections to an even-year schedule.

"I personally think it would be better if it were on the [even-year] election years," Swenson said. "Special interest groups couldn't carry the day on certain topics or a certain candidate," something he said is more apt to happen with fewer residents casting ballots.

"The less people you have vote the easier it is to influence an election," Swenson added. "It's easier to have an effect that wouldn't necessarily portray what the community as a whole feels."

But if St. Paul Park were to follow the biennial, even-year election schedule "that would leave just the school board election" in odd years, Hunziker said. "As long as there's going to be a school board election in the Park we might as well go [to the polls] for the council."