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Why state law requires mayoral races to be held in the spring when turnout is higher in the fall

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Posted at 4:45 PM, Apr 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-05 20:26:47-04

MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee’s voter turnout is typically far lower during spring elections than in the fall when higher profile races are on the ballot.

This year, Los Angeles is moving its mayoral race to November, specifically to boost turnout.

Milwaukee’s Spring Election includes a special mayoral election. When former Mayor Tom Barrett resigned in December, state law required the city to hold an election as soon as feasibly possible. Some Milwaukee voters think it makes sense to consolidate future spring and fall elections into one in November so more voices are heard.

Dorothy Hunt says she usually doesn’t participate in spring elections, but she headed to the polls Tuesday because she wants to help choose Milwaukee’s next mayor.

"I kind of go with the fall, but because this is a mayoral election, I think that's what motivated me to do it, but typically no,” she said. “I always just kind of sit the spring election out.”

Wisconsin requires regularly scheduled mayoral elections to be held in the spring, because they are non-partisan races. Los Angeles is doing away with a similar tradition after growing frustrated with low voter turnout in the spring.

Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd thinks other cities should follow suit.

"You want better turnout? Put your mayors' elections in November,” Todd said. “I think if you're trying to hold any general elections in any other month that isn't November, you're essentially asking for a low voter turnout."

Let’s go in-depth to compare Milwaukee’s voter turnout in recent years. In 2016, 52.5 percent of Milwaukee’s registered voters participated in the spring mayoral election. Flash forward to the fall general election and turnout jumped to 75.5 percent.

Milwaukee Election Commission data shows the difference was much greater in 2020.

2020 MKE Voter Turnout.png

Former Milwaukee Election Commission Executive Director Neil Albrecht says it has dictated the races on the ballot along with state statute.

“A lot of city, town or village offices, the school boards, the judicial seats, all of those have to occur in the spring and then the partisan offices where the candidates are affiliated with a political party, those then get scheduled for the fall,” he said.

Albrecht says that’s because Wisconsin used to offer something called straight-party voting in the fall, where you simply voted for your political party instead of individual candidates. That went away more than a decade ago and now you vote for a candidate in each race down the ballot. Albrecht says although that means the switch would be easier now, it’s unlikely given Wisconsin’s political landscape.

"It doesn't necessarily increase access to the ballot, because the same people would have access in this election as in a fall election."

Los Angeles held a city-wide referendum and voters decided to move their mayoral elections to the fall. A similar move in Wisconsin would require a change to state law.

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