What Can Cities Do to Increase Voter Turnout in Local and Mayoral Elections?

By Jason Jurjevich and Phil Keisling

Voter turnout is a foundational aspect of American democracy. In the 2012 Presidential election, less than 60 percent of the Voting Eligible Population (VEP) cast a ballot. In the 2014 Midterm election, the figures were even lower; just 36.7 percent of individuals turned out to vote, which is the lowest voter turnout rate since 1942. In party primary elections, which are now viewed as “determinative” in the vast majority of Congressional and state legislative contests, voter turnout averages around 15 percent of the eligible population.

Unfortunately, low voter turnout is also prevalent in mayoral elections in the nation’s largest cities. Our analysis reveals that among the nation’s 30 largest cities, only 20 percent of voting age citizens punched their ballots at the ballot box. In many cities, fewer than 15 percent of eligible citizens vote in local elections.

Given the implications for democracy, as well as social justice — when too few people elect leaders, more attention is paid to the interests of small groups of people rather than to community-wide, pressing issues of equity and good governance — the challenge of how to boost electoral participation remains one of the most important political issues of the day.

When it comes to Mayoral elections specifically, our research team found four general ideas that we argue, are worthy of additional discussion and possible action:

  1. Timing of Elections. With more than two-thirds of the 50 largest U.S. cities holding their mayoral contests “off-cycle” — that is, in odd-numbered years as “stand alone” contests separate from even-year elections to fill higher-profile posts such as Governor, U.S. Congress, or U.S. President — the timing of mayoral elections appears to play a significant role in who votes — and who does not — in these contests.
  2. Voter Registration. In every state except North Dakota, state law requires that legally eligible, citizens of voting age must separately register to vote before they can receive a ballot. According to Dr. Michael McDonald at the U.S. Election Project, over 227 million Americans were eligible to cast ballots (as of November 2014). Yet, state voter registration rolls show only about 190 million total registered voters, and just 175 million of these are classified by their states as “active.” In other words, about 50 million Voting Age Citizens, who are technically eligible to vote, currently are unable to vote until they officially register as voters.
  3. Ballot Delivery. Getting more registered voters on the rolls does not necessarily guarantee that more individuals will vote. Indeed, the only city in our study with voter turnout exceeding 50 percent was Portland, Oregon. Oregon’s “vote at home” system, in part explains why the state routinely posts one of the highest rates of voter turnout across the U.S.
  4. Campaign Finance Reform. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, campaign contribution limits have largely disappeared for major U.S. political contests, including mayoral races. Wealthy donors — be they individuals, corporations, unions, or special “Super PACs” — are now seen by vast numbers of Americans as having far more influence over elections than average citizens. This perspective — and the discouragement and apathy it can help spawn — in turn leads to further disengagement from the political process, and lower voter turnout.

Timing of Elections. The history of “off-cycle” elections has its roots in the Progressive era as a reform to help focus citizen attention on municipal politics. A number of studies now suggest that the low voter turnout rates found in many cities in our study (and others), particularly among younger and minority voters, are exacerbated by this approach. A March 2016 study, funded by Pew and conducted by Rice University’s Center for Local Elections in American Politics (LEAP), found that California cities whose mayoral elections were aligned with regular midterm elections — and especially Presidential elections — had far higher voter turnout.

In response, some states, most notably California in 2015, approved legislation that forces localities with especially low voter turnout to merge their elections with statewide contests. Elsewhere, cities have changed their city charters to address low voter turnout. Baltimore, for example, moved its mayor’s race to 2016, and Los Angeles voters approved a similar change in 2015. It’s likely other jurisdictions will also examine this approach, though in most cities any election date change will require a change in the City’s Charter, which only a majority of voters can approve.

Voter Registration. Voter registration laws have been liberalized in recent decades. For example, in addition to making it significantly harder to remove voters due to inactivity, now more than 30 states allow voters to register online, and roughly 15 states allow “Election Day Registration”. The latter allows eligible citizens to register to vote, or update existing registration, at a polling station or a local election office all the way through Election Day. While these systems show promising results in Presidential elections, their impact is less pronounced for midterm and local municipal elections.

A potentially more powerful change would simply “reverse the polarity” of existing state laws about registration, and instead of requiring citizens to take action to register, require government to take action to register its citizens. Numerous studies show that the non-registered tend to be poorer, far younger, and more likely to be a member of a minority group compared to registered voters. Put another way, the share of a Voting Age Citizen population that is not yet even registered will tend to be significantly higher in large and mid-sized U.S. cities, given the younger, more diverse nature of their populations compared to rural and suburban areas.

In 2015, Oregon became the first state to essentially adopt a system that automatically registers citizens deemed to be eligible to vote (e.g. when qualifying for a driver’s license) through the state’s “Motor Voter Act” (http://sos.oregon.gov/voting/Pages/motor-voter-faq.aspx). Newly registered voters can “opt out” if they choose, but Oregon officials estimate this will add another 300,000 individuals to the voting rolls. California advocates put the number at 6 million, when its legislature several months later adopted a similar bill. Vermont and West Virginia have also adopted similar legislation. Although voter registration laws are made at the state level, city leaders could certainly advocate for similar changes in their states.

Ballot Delivery. The single biggest factor underlying Portland’s high voter turnout is that Portland is one of a handful of cities that holds its Mayoral election in concert with the Presidential election cycle. Portland’s voters, though, do have another distinction. In almost every other city in this study, except for Seattle beginning in 2012, and Denver starting in 2014, voters must either go to the polls on Election Day (or during an early voting period) or apply and qualify for, ahead of time, an absentee ballot. Since 2000, all Oregon registered voters automatically receive their ballots in the mail roughly two weeks prior to Election Day. Oregon’s “Vote at Home” system allows voters to fill out their ballots at a time and place of their choosing — most do so at home — and then choose how to return their ballots. Traditionally, most voters mailed them back to their county’s election office, though in recent years the proliferation of hundreds of official “ballot drop sites” across the state has led to most voters returning their ballots in person.

Even some of the strongest skeptics of Oregon’s system concede that it seems to significantly improve voter turnout in local elections, especially those held separate from regular Midterm and Presidential contests. The next cycle of mayoral elections in Seattle, Washington, and Denver, Colorado will follow Oregon’s lead in sanctioning the Vote at Home system of ballot delivery. In several other states, state law now allows local officials to make the decision as to whether to conduct their elections in this way. In November 2015, for example, California’s San Mateo County became the largest local government to conduct such an election, with the result being significantly lower costs and much higher voter turnout, especially among traditionally low-turnout minority voters.

City officials can urge state elected officials to either adopt Vote at Home laws outright — as Oregon, Washington, and Colorado have done — or enact “local option” laws that let local officials decide their method of ballot delivery. Since election costs are largely the responsibility of local governments, and not state lawmakers, advocates can also invoke the cause of fiscal responsibility, as well as higher voter turnout.

Campaign Finance Reform. While prospects for campaign finance reform at the national level see dim in the short term, some promising initiatives have emerged at state and local levels. For example, New York City has long operated a system by which small donations to a candidate can be matched, on a ratio of up to 6:1, with public funds. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Miami recently have adopted similar systems, which advocates say help empower a broader diversity of candidates to run for office, and help average citizens feel they have more say in the process.