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When Is the Election?

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When Is the Election?

How off-cycle election timing distorts local democracy. September 22, 2020
Politics and law

Across the United States, typical turnout rates in city elections are stunningly low. In New York, the rate in last year’s city election was about 15 percent. The last time mayoral candidates were on the ballot, fewer than 22 percent of voting-age adults participated. In Dallas’s last mayoral election, 80,871 ballots were cast—an anemic 8 percent of the city’s adults. Even in Chicago’s historic election last year, only about one-third of the city’s registered voters participated.

The main culprit for low turnout in urban elections is simple: timing. People are accustomed to voting on “Election Day”—the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of even-numbered years, when we vote for most national and state offices. But most local elections take place at other times, such as the spring or in odd-numbered years. The consequences for local democracy are enormous. The most obvious result is low voter turnout. When city elections are held on-cycle—meaning on the same day as national and state elections—most people who turn out to vote for president or governor will vote in the city races as well. But many of these same people won’t bother to vote in city races held at other times.

Turnout is not only lower in off-cycle city elections—it’s usually a lot lower. A study from the Public Policy Institute of California finds that turnout in off-cycle city elections averages 36 percentage points lower than turnout in city elections held concurrently with presidential elections, and 21 points lower than those held during elections for governor. Two other studies find that off-cycle election timing lowers city voter turnout from about 27 points to 29 points, compared with city elections held concurrently with presidential elections. These are huge effects. For perspective, consider that vote-by-mail, currently a contentious electoral reform, increases voter turnout in a typical year by about two percentage points.

It’s not just the voter-turnout rate that’s affected by off-cycle election timing. When turnout drops by 20 to 30 percentage points, the composition of the electorate changes as well. When a city’s turnout rate is as low as 15 percent, the key question is not who isn’t voting—it’s who is. Who are these people who both know the local election is happening and make the effort to vote in it? One answer, of course, is residents with enough spare time and resources to follow local politics and incur the costs of voting. But a second and equally important answer is people with a big stake in city policies. These voters, who tend to have an even greater impact in off-cycle elections, include homeowners, developers, city employees, and business owners. They also include people organized into interest groups—and interest groups with a major stake in an election outcome don’t just sit around waiting to see what happens. They actively mobilize their members and supporters. The lower the turnout, the greater the effect each mobilized voter has on the election outcome. Off-cycle election timing therefore tends to increase the influence of interest groups.

It can be hard to predict how all of this works out. Some interest groups are better organized than their rivals, while others face little organized opposition. These groups benefit from off-cycle election timing. Their members and strong supporters will still turn out when few others do, and their mobilization efforts will go a lot farther in a low-turnout environment.

Public-sector unions have taken advantage of this dynamic. For example, teachers’ unions are some of the best-organized and most active groups in local school-board elections. Any organized competition they face, such as from business or parent groups, is weak and inconsistent by comparison. My own research shows that teachers’ unions generally benefit from off-cycle election timing and low turnout: school districts that elect their boards in off-cycle elections tend to pay teachers higher salaries. City elections are more complicated because there are more groups, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that public-sector unions face more competition. My analysis of voting in California shows that cities with off-cycle elections pay police officers and firefighters more. They also spend more on employee salaries and benefits overall and have higher operating expenditures.

The point is not that generous pay for teachers or firefighters is bad or good. It’s that something as simple as the date of an election can tip the scales in favor of certain interests, and against the wishes of the broader voting public. A new study shows, for example, that school boards chosen in on-cycle elections better represent citizens’ preferences. This makes sense: more representative electorates choose more representative elective bodies.

So why do most cities and school districts have off-cycle elections? Why not just move all elections to November of even-numbered years? It’s hard to think of a simpler, more effective way of expanding voter participation in local elections.

Americans certainly don’t like off-cycle elections. In 2008, I asked a nationally representative sample of adults whether they think local elections should be held on the same day as national elections or on different days. Nearly 70 percent of respondents said it would be better to hold local elections on the same day as national elections. Sizeable majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents agreed.

One explanation for off-cycle elections’ persistence is that electoral institutions established long ago have a way of sticking around. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Progressive Era municipal reformers separated local elections from state and national elections. They claimed that doing so would help ensure that voters would vote in city elections based on local issues—not on the basis of their partisan loyalties or national issues irrelevant to local politics. What happened instead is that many people stopped voting in local elections.

It’s also important not to be naive about why these kinds of electoral institutions persist. After all, even longstanding institutions like at-large elections can change when politicians want them to. Before the Progressive Era, the timing of city elections changed regularly: party leaders frequently tampered with the election schedules of big cities like New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia to stack the deck in their favor. Even Progressive Era reformers probably figured that off-cycle election timing would help boost the local candidates whom they favored. That the practice has proven so resilient tells us that someone is benefitting from it—and doesn’t want it changed.

Consider what happens when people do propose changes. State governments set the rules for the timing of local elections, and it’s common for state legislators to introduce bills that would move local elections to November of even-numbered years. Those efforts almost always fail. When they do pass, it’s usually in watered-down form.

Why such resistance? Because these bills run up against opposition from organized groups. This past January, a group of Democrats in Washington’s state legislature proposed eliminating the statewide election in November of odd-numbered years—a change that would have affected cities, towns, school districts, and other special districts. During the committee hearing in the state House of Representatives, progressive and voting-rights groups testified in favor of the bill. Only the secretary of state and a few citizens spoke in opposition. But several organizations filed their opposition without testifying, including the state school board association, the state PTA, the association of fire commissioners, the Building Industry Association of Washington, and the Washington Public Ports Association. The bill never even made it to a vote in committee.

The most common patterns of support and opposition on election-timing bills also tend to defy the standard partisan logic. Efforts to move school board elections to November of even-numbered years, for example, are usually sponsored by Republicans who, cutting against type, praise the virtues of high voter turnout, while Democrats are opposed. But it makes sense once one realizes that prominent education groups like teachers’ unions often benefit from off-cycle elections—and they are aligned, of course, with the Democratic Party.

It’s also probably not a coincidence that many of the groups that opposed this year’s consolidation effort in Washington didn’t testify. Arguing against higher voter turnout is not good public relations. When people do make the case for keeping off-cycle elections, they rely on a few standard lines. They say that on-cycle election timing will result in very long ballots; that it will increase the cost of running a local campaign; that on-cycle electorates are less informed about local issues and candidates; and that many voters don’t vote in the down-ballot local races, anyway.

There are tradeoffs to on-cycle elections, of course. It means more races on the ballot in November of even-numbered years. And yes, some voters “roll off”—don’t vote—in the down-ballot local races. But even accounting for roll-off, voter participation in local races is still much higher in on-cycle elections. Roll-off doesn’t come close to neutralizing the turnout boost that comes with on-cycle election timing.

No research reveals whether running a local campaign costs more in an on-cycle election. But for city governments—and taxpayers—on-cycle elections promise considerable cost¬ savings. Almost 90,000 governments operate in the United States. That can mean lots of elections, which can be expensive. Administering one general election in a cycle is less costly than running separate elections for state and national offices, cities, and possibly even school boards and special districts.

As for the argument that people who don’t vote in off-cycle elections are uninformed—it cuts both ways. One study found that voters in off-cycle municipal elections are more likely to vote based on local issues. But majorities of people in on-cycle elections also say that they base their local votes on local issues.

To some extent, the problem of less-informed local voters is a self-fulfilling prophecy. In off-cycle elections, the players know that only a small fraction of those eligible will vote, so they focus their efforts on those likely voters. But if those same local groups and candidates knew that more city residents were likely to turn out, they would have greater incentive to get information to them. Which scenario produces a “more informed electorate”? It depends on how you look at it.

Some argue that incumbents are reelected at higher rates in on-cycle city elections, suggesting that perhaps on-cycle electorates are less able to hold politicians accountable. Other research, however, finds an even stronger accountability link in on-cycle elections. Voters in on-cycle school board elections reward incumbents for good performance and punish them for bad performance. Not so in off-cycle school board elections. It seems that off-cycle electorates make collective decisions on some other basis. Special interests, perhaps?

In any case, the potential downsides are not significant enough to outweigh the huge turnout increases that would come with on-cycle election timing. The chronically low turnout in local elections is a stain on American democracy—but this one would be fairly easy to wipe away.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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