Americans Aren’t Voting in Local Elections

Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | November 4, 2016

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Lost in the hubbub of this year’s contentious presidential contest is the fact that across the country, millions of Americans will also be voting in local races.

But a new report from Portland State University is raising concern about turnout in those contests. It found that in the country’s largest cities, fewer than 15 percent of eligible voters actually show up to cast their ballots for mayors and city council members.

Looking at data from the most recent local elections in 50 cities, researchers highlighted three major findings: turnout is ridiculously low; it’s mostly older people voting; and participation levels vary neighborhood by neighborhood — in other words, a limited portion of each city is determining who represents everybody.

In Houston, roughly one in five residents old enough to vote live in what the report calls a “voting desert.” The median age of voters in the second round of the last year’s local election in Houston was 61 years, compared to the median age of the adult population: 41.4 years. Only 18.2 percent of people old enough to vote did so in that election, according to the report. All told, voters over the age of 65 have 22 times greater electoral clout than those aged 18 to 34.

Voter turnout in the second round of Houston's 2015 election. Map by Portland State University.

Voter turnout in the second round of Houston’s 2015 election. Map by Portland State University.

The implications of such big gaps between who votes and who lives in a city are significant, wrote Kriston Capps in CityLab. “Elected leaders will represent the interests of retirees, if they know what’s good for them. The same goes for a vast disparity in turnout between voting oases and voting deserts. Mayors and Council members will think first to the needs of constituents who turn out to the polls.”

But what’s behind dismal turnout?

The Kinder Institute’s Center for Local Elections in American Politics has been conducting deep dives into local races state by state. Most recently, an analysis of elections in Indiana between 2003-2015 found that not only is turnout in mayoral elections declining, but more than 20 percent of all mayoral elections there are uncontested.

Interestingly, that report found that voter turnout increased the smaller the city, but it was also the small cities where mayoral candidates were more likely to go unchallenged. Still Indiana’s rate of uncontested races was far better than its neighbor’s to the south, Kentucky. There 57.6 percent of mayoral races go unopposed.

Some states are trying to address low turnout. The Center’s look at California elections from 1995 to 2014 found, unsurprisingly, that turnout for mayoral elections goes up during presidential elections, while those held off cycle have the lowest voter turnout.

Off-cycle elections were disproportionately held in the state’s largest cities, and 69 percent of all California municipalities holding off-cycle elections located in Los Angeles County. In 2015, the California legislature approved a measure intended to boost voter turnout by requiring cities with especially bad turnout to consolidate city and state elections.

“This is about voters, your constituents, coming out and participating by a greater percentage,” said Assemblyman Luis Alejo, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Other entities are taking steps in an effort to improve turnout.

This month, the city council in Washington, D.C. unanimously approved legislation that would make voter registration an automatic process. Data would be automatically transmitted from the city’s motor vehicles department to its election board. Residents don’t have to specifically indicate they want to register to vote. And if they don’t wan’t to be registered, they’d have to actively take steps to opt out.

“We’re really just flipping the presumption that we want you to be registered to vote,” Charles Allen, the city council member who introduced the legislation, told TV station WJLA.

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Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is Senior Editor with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

One Comment

  1. The low participation in local elections is playing into the hand of conservative efforts to drive state legislatures to the right using outside money. My local incumbent representative in the NC House has sent two direct mail pieces daily for the last two weeks. How is he affording that level of direct mail campaign?

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