Who votes for mayor? Unfortunately, not many of us.

By Jason Jurjevich

Local elections are critically important. Every day, over half a million local elected officials are making important and influential decisions about core local services like police and fire, transportation, housing, and drinking water. As American cities continue to grow, they are becoming important laboratories for positive civic change, especially as political gridlock at the federal level continues.

But despite the incredible impact local elected officials can have on people’s lives, we know little about electoral dynamics at the local level. So, who actually votes for mayor? The short answer: not most people. In elections for mayor, city council, and other important civic issues, low turnout has become the norm — 15 percent or less of eligible citizens are exercising their right to vote. And those who do vote tend to be older and more affluent than the population at large and less likely to be people of color, raising important questions about social justice and public policy related to local elections.

Percent turnout of eligible voters in the most recent mayoral election

Who Votes for Mayor is a project of Portland State University (PSU) with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, created to better understand which voices are heard at the ballot box, and how loudly. The project launched in 2015 with a pilot study that examined mayoral voting trends in four U.S. cities: Charlotte, North Carolina, Detroit, Michigan, Portland, Oregon, and St. Paul, Minnesota. This year, we’ve expanded the project to include 46 additional cities throughout the country, including the 30 largest.

In addition to measuring voter turnout in local elections, the project explores where the most frequent voters and nonvoters live and how key demographic traits like age, race and ethnicity, income, and education are related to voting patterns and behavior.

In the weeks to come, we will be posting deeper analysis of the data, along with a look at voting patterns in specific cities and suggestions for policy solutions that could increase participation in local elections. In the meantime, city-by-city election data from the study is freely available for use and download on the Who Votes for Mayor website under a Creative Commons license.

On behalf of the Who Votes for Mayor research team — including myself, Jason Jurjevich, former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling, and Portland State researchers Kevin Rancik, Carson Gorecki, and Stephanie Hawke — I invite you to dig into the data yourself and check back for more posts about who is voting in local elections.

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