The Elections No One Cares About

Turnout in local elections has gotten so low that some places might start practically paying people to vote. But there's a simpler, cheaper way to get more people to the polls.
by | August 11, 2015

Seattle's City Council is undergoing some major changes. Starting with this year's elections, all but two of the seats will be elected by district, with only two "at-large" seats still representing the city as a whole. Thanks to retirements and a primary defeat of an incumbent, at least four of the nine council seats will be held by newcomers next year.

But how much do Seattle's residents care about all these changes? Not much, if last week's primary election is any indication. Voter turnout didn't surpass 25 percent in any district. In some, it was well under 20 percent.

It's a familiar story. Most municipal elections are held during odd-numbered years and months away from November. Only five states (Arkansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Oregon and Rhode Island) hold all their municipal elections in November of even-numbered years. When held on stand-alone dates, with no state or federal races that typically boost turnout, most people don't show up to cast their vote -- either because they don't care enough or because they aren't even aware there's an election.

While turnout for presidential elections is considered low when it dips below 60 percent and midterm elections less than 40 percent, local elections that fail to draw more than 10 or 20 percent of voters are common. Voter turnout for local elections has historically lagged behind state and federal races, but recent results suggest it’s slowly becoming even worse.

The habit of holding local elections on separate dates has "outlived its usefulness," said Melissa Marschall, who leads the Local Elections in America Project at Rice University. "It doesn't make sense."

Some state officials agree. Last month, the California Assembly approved a bill that would force localities with low turnout -- less than 25 percent on average over four elections -- to move their elections so that they overlap with state or federal contests. (It's still awaiting action in the state Senate.) In June, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed a law moving local elections from the spring to the fall of odd-numbered years.

"There's a trend across the country to move toward concurrent elections," said Curtis Wood, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. "I'm hoping the changes we make here in Kansas will make the outcomes more representative of the people."

But would moving municipal elections actually boost turnout, or are Americans just too busy to tune into local politics?

Research indicates that shifting mayoral elections to presidential years results in an 18.5 percentage point jump in turnout, while changing to November of a midterm election yields an 8.7-point average increase.

Local governments started holding their elections separately from state and federal ones during the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, according to Wood. The hope was that this would keep state and federal elections from overshadowing the mostly nonpartisan local ones. That's still an argument being used today.

"Forcing our local campaigns to compete with state and federal races for money, for volunteers, for voter attention, I think is the wrong way," said California state Rep. David Hadley in arguing against the proposal to hold elections there concurrently.

But focusing attention on local races may not have been the only motivation for keeping those elections separate. According to Marschall, "the original reason was really to decrease the influence of immigrant voting and break the political machines. They thought it would be more difficult for non-English speakers to turn out, and it proved to be really effective."

In contemporary times, it remains the case that only a small subset of voters -- who often tend to be whiter, wealthier and older -- vote during stand-alone municipal elections. That allows interest groups to "capture" local elections, Marschall said. School districts, for example, that hold off-cycle elections are more likely to result in union-friendly candidates winning, and thus pay experienced teachers 3 percent more than districts that hold concurrent elections, according to Timing and Turnout: How Off-Cycle Elections Favor Organized Groups, a 2014 book by Berkeley political scientist Sarah Anzia.

L.A.'s turnout has gotten so bad that the City Council is exploring instituting a lottery system to offer cash prizes to some voters. And in July, a group called the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which seeks to boost Latino voting, paid $25,000 to a Los Angeles man for voting. (California and Alaska are the only states that allow such lotteries.)

There's no doubt about it. Holding concurrent elections is bound to increase turnout, even if many citizens drawn to vote for president or governor might skip the city council races. But a bigger selling point for cities and counties to switch, Marschall said, is financial: Holding elections less frequently should save them money.