Juneau may not remember the turnout for the last municipal election, since a majority seem to have slept through it.
It was 19.06 percent — but let’s round it up to 19.1 percent. That number, at least in part, inspired members of the League of Women Voters and Library Director Robert Barr to concoct Juneau Votes, a nonpartisan organization whose goal is registering and informing voters — and improving 19.1 percent.
“It was definitely in response to recent trends in municipal election rates,” said Barr. “From one perspective, it’s hard to understand. It’s easy to argue that municipal elections have a stronger effect on each of us as individuals.”
Elected assembly members and local ballot initiatives “have an immediate and obvious impact on our lives,” he said.
Laurie Sica, in an email, said she wasn’t surprised by the turnout, “given that there were no ballot propositions and only one contested race on the ballot.”
She said she can usually tell which elections will have a high or low turnout based on whether there’s an initiative that excites people — though even “high” turnout for a municipal election hasn’t meant much in the last decade. The 10-year average, from 2004 through 2013, is about 32.5 percent.
This year, Sica said, the Assembly is considering a charter amendment to establish a Juneau Pool Empowered Board, which would be similar to the Eaglecrest board. She’s not sure yet if voters will be motivated to get to the polls.
“I believe the voters who did turn out (in 2013) are people who feel it is important to exercise their right and privilege to vote, regardless of what is on the ballot,” Sica wrote.
Juneau Votes hopes to inspire more of these voters, and maybe more candidates.
The project came to be when Carolyn Brown and Judy Andree of the League of Women Voters were collaborating with library staff on a Women’s History Month display in the Downtown Juneau Library. Conversations started with Barr about how the League could work with libraries to increase civic engagement, a passion of Barr’s.
“I think libraries have always played a role really in making democracy work. It’s a public, nonpartisan place where people learn more about what’s going on in our local community, that is unbiased and neutral and nonpartisan,” Barr said.
Libraries’ collections should be representative of the whole community. They value intellectual freedom and, Barr said, “We’re not doing a good job if we’re not buying something that offends from time to time.”
Beyond carrying books that span the spectrum, Barr believes libraries should engage with the community in a nonpartisan way to create a more informed and engaged populace.
“That’s basically what Juneau Votes is,” he said.
Pat Watt, with the League, is also involved in Juneau Votes. A naturalized citizen originally from Scotland, Watt said registering to vote after being granted citizenship emphasized to her the responsibility that comes with citizenship — to vote.
Voting is the baseline goal for Juneau Votes.
“My hope is voting serves as a springboard for more engagement in civic life,” Barr said.
Watt agreed that more people “really need to step up” and serve on community boards, commissions and advisory groups.
“Or running for office so we don’t have uncontested seats,” Barr added.
Barr worries that uncontested races not only give people no choice, but he said candidates don’t get out and make themselves known or talk about the issues in an uncontested race.
Juneau Votes is expected to finalize its charter at 5 p.m. tonight in the Downtown Juneau Library. Organizers invite representatives of civic groups and members of the public who are interested in participating to attend and get involved.
“Can we incorporate other groups?” Brown asked as they organized. “Can we do more than we’ve done in the past? Can we incorporate the media? Chamber of Commerce? Can we go to Rotarians?”
They did present to the Chamber of Commerce last week.
Barr said they’ll also discuss more new ideas and hopefully delegate tasks — though they need more individuals who share a passion for civic engagement.
“People are welcome to come,” Barr said. “We’re trying to harness available energy.”
The League has been active this year in registering voters and re-registering voters who may have moved. With a grant, they were able to reach out to high schools and the university, registering 99 high schoolers, Watt said.
“Voter registration is important,” Barr said, but added that the big gap is between the number of registered voters and the number who actually cast their votes.
There’s a hope that making information available to the public and making it easy to understand might help.
Watt said they also want people to engage in civic discourse face-to-face and in a civil manner — the Internet notoriously lacks civility.
“If they hear each other, understand each other and see the impact on a personal level, it may or may not be more or less polarized, but everybody is more aware,” she said.
Coming up in the primary election — another event with traditionally low turnout — is the vote on whether to repeal SB21, the restructuring of the state’s oil taxes.
Barr said there’s a lot of confusion on the bill and people are less certain what it means. Though they are still confirming panelists, there will be two for and two against the repeal. During the first hour of the July 14 event at the Mendenhall Valley Library, from 5-6 p.m., there will be prepared questions. At 6 p.m. the floor will open to audience participation.
“It’s really important to pay attention to what’s going on in your community,” she said. “How those decisions are made, who’s making them. To have your voice heard. It’s worth speaking.”
While its vision is clear, the group is still working on quantitative goals.
“We know we want to do better, but in terms of metrics, because data are not clear, it’s difficult to know what the target should be,” Barr said.
Another challenge will be quantifying any changes in voter turnout that might be seen in the upcoming elections.
“It will be tricky to say how much might be increased turnout efforts vs. what’s new on the ballot,” he said. “That will be challenging to quantify.”
Juneau Votes has a lot of work ahead to remedy the low turnout rates for so many elections, but its organizers are not easily discouraged.
“We’re on a roll,” Brown said. “We’re a force to be reckoned with in terms of what we want to do.”
To follow Juneau Votes, visit them at facebook.com/juneauvotes.
Know and go
Juneau Votes Meeting
5 p.m., tonight, Downtown Juneau Public Library
5 p.m., July 14, Mendenhall Valley Library