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The Right Time to Hold Elections

This week in state and local politics: San Francisco Mayor London Breed is in real trouble while there's handwringing over hand-counting ballots.

a sign in SFO that says "Welcome to San Francisco" with a picture of Mayor London Breed
Mayor Breed welcomes travelers to San Francisco International Airport. (Photo: Alan Greenblatt)
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The Right Time to Hold Elections: London Breed is in real trouble. San Francisco seems to be suffering from the seven plagues, or at least most imaginable urban ills. The city is seeing an alarming number of drug deaths, has a severe problem with homelessness, its downtown remains distressingly vacant and, while violent crime is low, unending retail and property theft have drawn national attention. As mayor, Breed pays a political price for all of this and, indeed, has already drawn some top-flight challengers hoping to topple her.

If San Francisco voters were inclined to boot her out of office, they won’t be able to do so this November, when her current term was originally set to end. Breed is getting a bonus year, because San Francisco voters chose last fall to move municipal elections to even-numbered years.

It’s part of a trend, in California and elsewhere, to move local elections long held in odd-numbered years to even ones, to coincide with state or federal contests. California passed a law back in 2015 encouraging localities to move elections to even-numbered years in order to increase voter turnout. New York’s Legislature passed a bill this year moving local elections, outside of New York City, to even-numbered years beginning in 2026, which Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul is expected to sign.

All of this is a good thing, says Vladimir Kogan, a political scientist at Ohio State University who has studied odd-numbered elections. Given lower turnout in off-year elections, interest groups can have a disproportionate sway. Teachers, for example, receive higher salaries in districts where school board elections are held in odd-numbered years, since their unions can turn out a disproportionate number of members and supporters. “The problem with off-cycle elections is that they dramatically reduce turnout, and do so unequally among different age and demographic groups,” Kogan says. “We’ve seen a lot of handwringing over what people call voter suppression in recent years. Yet the impact of off-cycle elections on turnout are at least 100 times larger than the impact of voter ID laws.”

The idea of holding municipal elections in odd years dates back to the Progressive Era a century ago, when most local elections also became nonpartisan. The hope was that by separating them in time from state and federal elections, they would also be sheltered from their influence. That is, voters would concern themselves solely with local candidates and issues. While that all sounds well and good, there was a hidden agenda back then, says Chris Warshaw, a political scientist at George Washington University. “It was an idea that was specifically designed to tilt elections toward well-educated voters,” he says. “Progressives opposed party machines, and they were decidedly not working class.”

Party machines are largely a thing of the past, but we’re now living at a time when politics is both partisan and nationalized. No matter what office people are voting for, they’re mainly expressing their opinion about the president and their party. There may be cases where an off-year election will allow people to tune out national issues and judge a mayor on their own merits but, as Kogan points out, there will be fewer people making that judgment.

Breed was elected in 2019 in an election that saw a turnout rate of 42 percent, but mayoral elections around the country are frequently decided by less than 20 percent of eligible voters. “Today, we know that off-cycle elections reduce turnout,” Warshaw says. “In general, they mean an older electorate and one that’s mostly more educated.”

Elections are about giving everyone their say. Old school Progressives at the dawn of the 20th century may have been fine with low-turnout elections and making it harder for people to vote. That doesn’t mean we have to be.
people hand counting ballots
Hand-counting ballots in Kansas. (TNS)
Handwringing Over Hand Counting: Debates about election fraud are unending. Fresh off his fourth indictment in Georgia, former President Donald Trump pledges to unveil new evidence next week that the 2020 election there was rigged against him. We’ll see. In the meantime, arguments about how best to secure elections continue.

One thing Trump and a number of other Republicans would like to see is hand counting of ballots. They insist it would increase transparency and confidence in results. “It’s our responsibility, and it should be our desire, to count every vote and to imbue confidence in our citizenry that our elections are fair and free, and that their vote is being counted,” New Hampshire GOP state Rep. Mark Alliegro said last year after introducing a hand count bill, one of a half-dozen such state bills around the country. (Alliegro lost his re-election bid in November.) Individual counties in California, Georgia and Nevada have made moves to start hand counting.

There’s a problem with that approach, suggests Tammy Patrick, a former election official with Maricopa County, Ariz. If we want election counts to be fast, accurate and cheap, hand counting accomplishes none of those things. “Human beings are prone to error in repetitive counting tasks,” Patrick says. “We don’t want to roll back election administration to a less-effective method.”

If there’s one thing machines are good at, it’s counting. Humans, by contrast, get tired quickly. That’s especially true at the end of a long day — which election days inevitably are. And, when it comes to ballots, it’s not just a matter of counting the votes for president. All the votes for county commission and city council and propositions and all the rest have to be counted, too. It starts to get numbing and, in Patrick’s experience, mistakes are all but inevitable.

Some counties in Arizona still want to move to hand counting. State law forbids it and Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs vetoed a bill in June that would have allowed counties to hold hand counts. Officials in Mohave County decided to explore the question anyway. What they found is that it simply isn’t practical. Each sample ballot took an average of three minutes to count. At that rate, the county would have to employ 245 people to keep counting seven days a week for nearly three weeks. Even that’s assuming there’d be no mistakes or write-in ballots. The cost came to $1 million, a big chunk for a relatively small county. Earlier this month, the county Board of Supervisors rejected the idea of hand counts in future elections.

Hand counts in limited, controlled circumstances during post-election audits are fine, says Patrick, who’s now with the National Association of Election Officials. In terms of finding out who won, however, hand counting will only lead to delays and increased doubt. “Sometimes what seems like a simple solution is not going to solve the problem,” she says, “it’s going to introduce new problems.”

Academic studies have shown that machine counts are more accurate than hand counts. The idea that machines can’t be trusted has been driven by conspiracy theorists who claim that they’re used to flip votes. Such false claims have made one election machine company rich through successful pursuit of defamation cases. They shouldn’t become the basis for policy.

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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