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Wed, Nov. 20

News analysis: Mailed ballots increase turnout

The Daily Courier/Nathaniel Kastelic --- Steve Blair, left, Alan Dubiel, Paul Katan, Jim Lamerson, Lora Lopas, and Mary Ann Suttles debate local issues at the Yavapai Performance Hall during a debate in August.

The Daily Courier/Nathaniel Kastelic --- Steve Blair, left, Alan Dubiel, Paul Katan, Jim Lamerson, Lora Lopas, and Mary Ann Suttles debate local issues at the Yavapai Performance Hall during a debate in August.

PRESCOTT- Ever since Prescott made the move in 2001 to a mail-in format for its city elections, local voters have responded enthusiastically.

From a high of nearly 68-percent turnout in 2003, to this week's 53-percent response, turnout in the past four city elections has consistently topped the 50-percent mark.

And while that still leaves a large portion of registered voters who are not casting ballots, the turnout of recent years is substantially higher than that of the 1990s, when Prescott conducted traditional polling-place elections.

Back then, voter turnout regularly hovered in the 30-to-35-percent range.

In 1999, for instance, just 7,323 voters (32 percent) turned out at the polls in the September primary, which featured the mayoral race between two-term incumbent Paul Daly and long-time local politician Sam Steiger.

The turnout rate was even lower for the November 1999 general election - when 6,755 voters cast ballots, for 30 percent.

In 2001, the first year of the mail-in ballot, the voting numbers more than doubled.

The September primary - a contest that featured first-time mayoral candidate Rowle Simmons and former City Councilman Dick Cooper - generated voter turnout of nearly 67 percent in the primary, with more than 12,000 voters casting ballots.

"It definitely helped turnout to go to the mail ballot, which is what usually happens," Prescott City Clerk Elizabeth Burke said of the 2001 switch.

Records from Burke's office also show that - except for a few deviations - Prescott voters are fairly consistent in their voting habits.

Within a percentage point or two, voter turnout rates remained constant in 2003, and 2005 and appear to be following suit this year.

Since 2003, the September primaries repeatedly have attracted more than 50 percent of the city's registered voters, while turnout has jumped to the high 60-percent range for the November general elections.

In the city's second round of mail-in ballots in 2003, turnout for the primary reached about 56 percent. Then, in the 2003 general election - buoyed perhaps by that year's controversial smoking initiatives - voter turnout reached its highest level in recent years, at 67.6 percent.

Following a similar pattern, the 2005 primary attracted about 55 percent of the registered voters. Then, in the general election that featured the Reasonable Growth Initiative, voters again responded at a relatively high level, with 14,946 ballots cast - for 67.3 percent.

At 53.3-percent voter turnout, this week's primary was down about 1 percent from the voter response of the previous two primaries.

This fall, voters will once again face a general election that will feature a ballot measure. The city's Nov. 6 general election ballot will ask voters whether the current 2-percent bed tax rate (for hotels and motels) should increase to 3 percent.

Contact the reporter at cbarks@prescottaz.com.

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