Election spotlight: Breaking down the numbers on every seat up for election this year
In an era when low voter turnout recently led the Los Angeles city council to offer cash prizes for voting in a school board race, local elections appear to be fading in popularity across the country. Six of the ten most populous cities in the U.S. saw turnout at less than 20 percent in their most recent mayoral election. While surveys show Americans trust local governments more than state and federal governments, they are more likely to cast a vote for a congressperson or president.
But midterm and presidential elections are just one part of a much larger picture. We broke down our data on every seat up for election this year across the country to find the what, where, and when of elections in 2019. Inside and outside of major cities this year, we counted that voters across the country will have had the opportunity to elect candidates to fill 85,725 government seats — candidates who will make decisions affecting citizens on the local, county, and state levels.*
In fact, many of the positions up for election this year are specifically lawmaking seats, with legislative seats making up about two out of every five seats up for election. More than 32,000 city council seats are up for election in 2019, for example, and these city council members will be responsible for making many of the laws that impact day to day life in their cities: the creation and maintenance of a local police force, zoning policies that regulate development, and the city’s liquor laws. Some of the most contentious policy issues of recent years — marijuana legalization, minimum wage raise increases, and sanctuary city policies, among others — have taken form in debates over city legislation.
And municipal lawmaking can allow for policy innovation that may not be possible on a state level. In San Francisco, for example, a city-level agency, the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, investigates wage violation complaints, working with three city-funded nonprofits to identify those at risk of wage theft and educate workers about wage protections. One lawsuit against a high-end restaurant owner who failed to pay employees minimum wage settled for $4.2 million dollars in 2014. (NYU Wagner’s School of Public Service chose San Francisco’s labor standards enforcement agency as one of eight city-level policies with a proven record of success.)
Since 94.2 percent of the seats up for election this year are at the local level, we’ll first focus in on those— seats in local governments of all kinds, including municipalities, towns, townships, and special districts.
City council members make up the biggest portion of the year’s local seats up for election (40.1 percent), with school board members following behind (27.1 percent). A total of 4,759 mayors will be elected or re-elected this year, making up another small portion (5.9 percent) of local-level seats.
The remaining local seats (26.9 percent) are composed of an array of miscellaneous elected positions, including seats in special districts across the country. (A good part of the “miscellaneous” local category is made up of township positions, such as township supervisor and township treasurer — we’ll come back to townships later.)
Special districts are local government entities providing focused services (water, fire control, or mosquito control, for example) within a geographic area not necessarily aligned with a state’s counties or municipalities. These local governments are shrouded in mystery, despite special district spending reaching more than $200 billion annually and the number of special districts nearly tripling in the second half of the 20th century. Special districts with seats up for election this year range from fire districts (1,660 seats) to library districts (1,973 seats) to cemetery districts (314 seats) to swimming pool districts (19 seats). Seven seats are up for election in a television district in Blue Mountain, Oregon, and two members of a town ethics committee will be elected in Merrimack, New Hampshire.
Total seats up for election by state
Where are these more than 85,000 seats up for election located?
Midwestern and Northeastern states led the country in total seats up for election this year: Illinois had the most total seats (9,805), followed by Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Wisconsin. On the opposite end, Hawaii, West Virginia, and Washington, DC don’t have any scheduled elections this year at any level.
Population-adjusted seats by state
Ohio led New York by 3 seats up for election this year, despite the fact that New York’s population exceeds Ohio’s by nearly 8 million. This prompted a question: which states will have had the most seats up for election per capita this year?
All of the top five states with the most 2019-elected seats per capita were Midwestern states (South Dakota, Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Illinois), followed again by Northeastern states. Some of this might be explained by these being more rural states with lower populations. But South Dakota’s extremely high rate of seats up for election per capita this year, 3.44 seats per thousand people, is more than double that of the second-highest state, Iowa, at 1.31 seats per thousand people.
South Dakota’s high number of seats up for election per capita comes from its enduring township system — a holdover from South Dakota’s pre-statehood days, in which early voters in a “civil township” annually chose “three supervisors, a clerk, a treasurer, an assessor, an overseer of the poor, and an overseer of highways for each road district,” plus two township constables and justices of the peace, according to the South Dakota Historical Society.
These positions have since dwindled to three supervisors, a clerk, a treasurer, and an optional constable. Although some of the state’s townships remain responsible for road-maintenance and fire protection, state- and county-level governments have largely subsumed civil township responsibilities in South Dakota. Nevertheless, elections set to occur in more than 900 townships, South Dakota towers above other states in terms of seats up for election per capita.
South Dakota’s township seats will be up for election November 6, part of the 84 percent of seats up for election this year that will be elected in the month of November. Some have suggested that low turnout for local elections could be mitigated with the right timing, by holding all local elections on the same day as statewide and nationwide elections — in particular, on the first Tuesday in November, a day voters recognize as Election Day. Arizona recently passed a state bill mandating that local elections showing a “significant decrease” in odd year turnout will move to even years. That meant that last month in Phoenix, voters were faced with a paradoxical choice: vote, or stay home in the hopes of potentially increasing future turnout.
At a time when last week’s municipal election in St. Louis brought only 10.3 percent of registered voters to the polls, it may seem that voters have lost faith in the power of elected positions to influence policy or represent their interests. Low turnouts are especially concerning given that elections with smaller proportions of eligible adults voting have proven to be less representative of the electorate as a whole.
But today’s Americans are hardly lacking in political engagement — midterm elections in 2018 saw record turnout nationwide, with more than 47 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots, the highest proportion in half a century. If voters arm themselves with the knowledge they need to make informed choices about local elections, this renewed civic spirit has the potential to be a powerful force in deciding which candidates will hold the more than 85,000 elected seats up for election this year.
*Counts of 2019 elections are subject to change due to newly scheduled special elections and shifting election laws.
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By Emma Boczek, BallotReady Intern