Recently, while talking with a friend who is active in partisan politics, I asked him if he’d voted in the Oct. 22 municipal election, in which voters went to the polls to select Franklin’s Mayor and four at-large aldermen.
“First election I’ve missed since I lived in Nashville and Bredesen was mayor,” he said. “I knew it was coming, but thought it was on Nov. 5 like other races.”
I wasn’t surprised he didn’t vote, but that’s no knock on him. He had plenty of company. Out of more than 52,000 registered voters in Franklin, only 3,780, or 7.17 percent, cast ballots. That’s down from the 2017 election, in which 9.18 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote on the four aldermen elected by ward.
Tennessee ranks 49th in the country in voter turnout so, in terms of how we're doing as a state, Franklin’s low turnout isn’t unique. There are doubtless several reasons for the statewide statistic, but here, we can partially attribute it to the fact the city chooses to hold municipal elections as a stand-alone event, in a month in which there are no other elections, in an off-election cycle: The Tennessee Secretary of State’s office reports turnout in municipal elections that don’t coincide with countywide elections is much lower than other county elections.
While local officials publicly bemoan Franklin’s dismal voting statistics, they fail to note they actually have the ability at any time to change the municipal elections to coincide with other county elections.
To be blunt: The timing of Franklin’s elections isn’t designed to encourage voter participation.
The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) released a report in September prepared in response to Republican-sponsored legislation introduced in 2018 because of concerns about low voter participation and the cost of municipal elections. The report explicitly states, “two main reasons cities choose to consolidate with the countywide elections are to save money and improve voter participation.”
Each municipality is responsible for reimbursing Williamson county for election costs so combining elections would save the city about $50,000. While that’s not a fortune in a prospering city like Franklin, a board that prides itself on fiscal responsibility should be glad to find what equates to the annual salary of a Franklin police officer.
Most election dates are specified by state charter, but many local government officials say they understand their communities’ unique needs and issues and should be able to decide when they hold their own elections, according to TACIR. Officials also suggest that hyper-local issues, addressed in the October municipal elections, would be drowned out in more comprehensive elections that feature broader state and national issues.
I’ve paid close attention to the last few Franklin Board of Aldermen elections and while media and community organizations do a solid job of covering these local issues, that’s all for nothing if the voting public doesn’t even realize there’s an election happening. The tree is falling in the forest, but no one hears it.
I’m a big fan of local control. In this case, the state makes very clear that while cities aren’t required to change their election dates from October, they have the right to do so, there are plenty of good reasons for it and there are several available options.
As of March 2019, 280 of the state’s 345 cities, or 81 percent, have moved their municipal elections to coincide with the regular August or November election. Three of those are in Williamson County: Fairview, Nolensville and Thompson’s Station have scheduled their elections for the November elections in even years, and Spring Hill officials are considering making a similar move.
Franklin can change the October municipal election to one of the two other dates by ordinance, which means the eight members of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen hold the power to increase voter turnout, rather than simply talking about it.
Talk is cheap. If Franklin’s leaders want to expand voter turnout rather than suppress it, it’s time for them to take action and move the municipal elections, as so many of our sister cities in Tennessee already have.