By Danny Holt
This year, millions of Americans will vote in municipal elections across the country. Yet, in the United States, local level democracy is a largely lackluster exercise due to low participation.
The backbone of a strong democracy is active engagement, but hardly anyone participates in local elections. Fifteen of the nation’s thirty most populous cities, for example, recorded voter turnout below 20 percent in recent mayoral elections.
Besides bad democratic practice, this low turnout translates to minority rule. Our current crisis of low turnout underrepresents a handful of populations — namely, people of color, people with less income, and young people. When turnout increases, the electorate becomes more representative of these populations and the overall diversity of our country. Currently, the interests of a few active participants — those able and knowledgeable enough to vote in low-information elections — are privileged over those of the many. This is hardly surprising, as most local elections are structured in a way that discourages participation.
If America is to live up to its democratic dream, states must pass reforms that will revitalize and democratize local elections. Those fighting for reform should look to three simple policies that are currently sweeping the nation.
Few people make it to their polling places for local elections. But maybe they shouldn’t have to.
There is a growing movement in the United States to allow citizens to vote from home. Under such a system, voters receive their ballots by mail in the weeks leading up to Election Day and return them by mail or in-person. This creates a more flexible system that lets people vote at their convenience. And even more importantly, receiving a municipal ballot weeks in advance allows for voters to research the municipal candidates they do not know. Currently, local elections devolve into an exercise of picking candidates at random from lack of information. There are just so many local offices and far too little media coverage of the differences between each candidate. Giving voters more time to research what’s on the ballot would be a boon to civic education and a more confident electorate.
First introduced in Oregon in 1998, vote-at-home is spreading across the country, increasing turnout where implemented. In the 2018 primary elections, states with robust vote-at-home systems had a 15 percent higher median turnout than polling-place-centric states.
And, vote-at-home is cheaper, as it requires fewer poll workers and less Election Day administration. After the implementation of its program, through which all registered voters use mail-in ballots, Colorado saved more than $6 per voter (that translates to a 40 percent cost reduction).
Simply put, vote-at-home leads to cheaper and more representative elections.
Most municipalities in the country hold elections in odd numbered years, those without presidential or congressional elections (referred to as off years). Because there are no high profile races dominating the newscycle, few are aware an election is underway. This leads to decreased turnout. Moreover, some cities, such as Chicago, hold their elections at the beginning of odd years, a time only a few associate with Election Day.
The fix for this problem is both obvious and easy to implement: align local elections with higher-turnout federal elections to increase participation.
Research shows that, on average, shifting mayoral elections to presidential years results in an 18.5 percentage point turnout increase, while aligning with midterm elections translates to an 8.7-point average rise in participation. In 2016, for example, Baltimore switched to on-cycle elections and turnout among registered voters rose from 13 percent to 60 percent. And, when combined with the added time voters have to research candidates using vote-at-home, this would make for a larger and more informed electorate.
Equally encouraging, there is bipartisan support for this reform. 73 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans support on-cycle over off-cycle local elections. What’s more, switching local elections to on-cycle years saves money. Baltimore saved $3.7 million in administrative costs when the city moved its municipal elections to even years.
Why spend more for less representative elections? That’s a message all Americans can get behind.
Election Day Registration
Our democratic system is rife with the bureaucratic obstacles of a bygone era. Chief among these are voter registration deadlines, rendered obsolete by the advent of modern technology. Today, voter registration deadlines are nothing but a barrier to democratic participation.
Fortunately, there’s a straightforward solution: Election Day Registration (EDR).
EDR allows voters to register on the day they vote, and it’s backed up by a proven record of success in both Democrat and Republican-controlled states. States with EDR have turnout rates between 7 and 11 percentage points higher than those without it. And, contrary to the rhetoric of anti-democracy fearmongers, the 21 states that have adopted EDR have found virtually no evidence of voter fraud. For, unlike third party registration services, EDR is overseen by state election officials and requires proof of residency and an oath attesting to citizenship. And, EDR creates a fail-safe opportunity for election officials to fix last minute problems with voters’ registration and maintain more accurate voter rolls.
EDR is another great way to boost local election turnout, and the added benefit of increased security and accuracy makes it a no-brainer.
Across the country, we are seeing abysmal voter participation in municipal elections. In February, only 34 percent of registered Chicago voters cast ballots in the mayoral election — the city’s lowest turnout for a municipal election in more than a decade. In May, just over 13 percent of registered voters in Dallas voted in their mayoral election. Even in the primary election for Queens District Attorney, which attracted national attention, turnout was just 8 percent.
This democratic crisis can only be remedied by serious change. To create and maintain a vibrant democracy at all levels of government, states should explore these aforementioned reforms. If they do so, local politics will finally be put into the hands of the people and be something of which we are proud.
Danny Holt is an Equal Citizens Fellow.