What’s the Rush? Upcoming Special Election in Conway is Important, but Turnout May Be Low

by Dr. Jeremy Horpedahl
In just a few days on February 8th, Conway residents will be asked to vote on almost $40 million worth of bond issues. “Bond issues” may sound boring, but these would fund new amenities in Conway: a community center, pool, fitness center, and soccer complex.
Conway residents have reason to be excited, but choosing to hold a special election on such short notice during the peak of a global pandemic in Arkansas will likely result in low voter turnout, meaning that the majority of voters won’t have a say on this important issue.
How low might turnout be? Over the past several years, I have collected data with students at UCA to analyze the impact of special elections in Arkansas. We gathered data on over 1,000 special elections to increase sales taxes in cities and counties since the early 1980s. I was asked to present my research to a legislative committee last year when they were considering reforms to special elections rules, and I wanted to share some of that research with readers in Conway too.
We found that voter turnout is much lower at special elections; on average, less than half of general elections. Special elections have an average turnout of 19 percent of adults, compared with 44 percent in general elections. We also found that sales tax increases are much more likely to pass in special elections, when turnout is low: 76 percent of tax increases pass during special elections, compared with just 44 percent during general elections.
Recent special elections in Conway follow these trends, with turnout being even lower than average at special elections. In November 2017, voters approved a sales tax increase to fund city streets, but only about 3,500 voters showed up. Contrast that with the 2016 general election, when 22,500 votes were cast, about 6 times as many. Another recent special election in February 2012 had even lower turnout, with just 2,100 votes being cast, compared with 20,000 votes at the general election just 9 months later.
The upcoming election in Conway is not a tax increase, rather it is a pledge of the existing tax revenues from the Advertising and Promotion tax (known by many as the “hamburger tax”) on restaurants to pay off these bonds, but voters might consider it a similar kind of election. The total cost of the bond issues is over $600 per resident of Conway. Even with the generous assumption that half of the tax is paid by visitors to the city, that’s over $1,000 for a family of four.
When these A&P taxes are added on top of all the other taxes in Arkansas, Conway diners are paying 11.125% on their meals at restaurants. And Arkansas has the third highest average sales tax rates in the nation, just a hair behind Tennessee and Louisiana. Even though voters rejecting these bond measures seems unlikely, given past experience with special elections, if they do we may want to consider whether this tax is needed at all.
The main argument in favor of a special election is that it allows voters to focus on this one issue, rather than be distracted by other electoral issues and candidates at a general election. However, this special election was only announced three and a half weeks in advance. On the City of Conway website today (January 27, less than a week before early voting starts), there is no direct link from the main page to any information about the election, nor anything in the “news” nor “events” sections. A citizen would need to know they should look at the ordinances section of the page, and even then it is hard to find. The only relevant item in the news section was several workshops last August and September – held at the peak of the Delta wave of the pandemic in Arkansas, when almost 30 Arkansans were dying every day from COVID.
It’s the very short timeframe for the election that precludes a robust public information campaign about the project. Of course, the project has been in discussion for years, but the notice given to citizens, while within the legal requirements, does not seem like a big enough effort to make sure that turnout is high and citizens are well informed.
Voting is an important civic duty, but we are also now at the peak of the latest wave of the pandemic. Hospitalizations from COVID-19 are at record numbers in Arkansas, and so far, more than 1 percent of Arkansans, over 32,000 people, have been hospitalized throughout the pandemic. It has affected us all in many ways. There is a general election coming up in November of this year. Couldn’t this important issue, decades in the making, wait until then, when perhaps 10 times as many voters would have a say in the outcome?