One argument that we’ve heard since elector petitions began winning the vote at the annual financial town referendums (FTRs) is that only a small percentage of voters participate, compared with the elections that put candidates on the Town Council. Thus, the story goes, a handful of voters manages to undo the will of the larger number of voters who thought they were picking the people who would set the budget.
The most obvious response is that the old financial town meetings (FTMs), which the FTR replaced, used to set budgets with many fewer voters. Not infrequently, the meetings had trouble achieving the minimum quorum of 300 people.
Putting that aside, though, the story of voter participation in Tiverton follows a clear pattern: People like to vote in high-profile elections in which their votes count for the less. Looking at data from the state Board of Elections, when the presidential race is on the ballot, Tiverton voters turn out in the mid-60% range. In off years, turnout drops to the mid-40% range. By contrast, the last two competitive FTRs saw turnout of just over 20%.
However, low interest in local government can be seen during regular elections, too. Taking into account that voters get seven votes for council, the effective participation in that contest has tended to be around 40% during presidential years and around 30% during non-presidential years. In 2014, the council race had effective turnout of 27.5%, and the 2015 FTR the following May hit 20.5%. That’s a difference, but it isn’t huge, especially considering that the 7% gap contains people who might not follow local government very closely.
Of course, sparse turnout for local special elections cuts both ways. In November 2004, 7,535 Tiverton voters turned out to vote in the presidential election, or 60.9%. Within a couple weeks, Tiverton held a special election to vote on around $30 million in bonds to rebuild three elementary schools. This was arguably the most important vote in recent Tiverton history, setting in motion huge tax increases and heated political battles for decades to come, and only 2,511 people showed up, or 20.3%.
The bonds passed by just 73 votes.