This brief was originally published on February 2nd, 2015. It has been updated with new analysis for the 2020 election.
Most elections in the United States are at the local level. Every year, we elect tens of thousands of local elected officials, and what they do matters. Local spending is approaching $2 trillion annually and local governments control our schools and many of the services that we use each week. Despite the stakes, however, few Americans participate in these contests. Only about a quarter of residents turn out to vote in the typical citywide contest, and that number drops even further for lower level contests. The problem is not just that a tiny fraction of the population votes--it is that those who do turn out to vote in local elections do not look at all like those who fail to participate. In short, an extraordinarily unrepresentative set of residents is determining how local governments allocate local resources.
The problem is clear, but so too is the solution. The easiest, most politically viable, and most effective way to expand turnout and make local democracy more representative is to shift the timing of local elections so that officials in cities and suburbs are elected at the same time as presidents, governors, and legislators, at times when voter interest and turnout is at a peak.
Election Timing Matters
Simply changing the timing of local elections substantially alters who votes, who wins office, and the types of policies that local governments pursue. My research demonstrates the many advantages that flow from moving from “stand-alone” local elections held at different times than general elections – the system currently in place in about 70 percent of all municipalities in the United States – to on-cycle elections scheduled on the same date as statewide and national contests. This switch has the potential to dramatically increase the number of voters and the representativeness of the local voting population. Because voter turnout is routinely higher for statewide primaries and general elections, scheduling local contests at the same time makes it almost costless for citizens to vote for local representatives. They need only check off additional names further down the ballot.
The data on improved representation from synchronized elections are unequivocal.
- Across the nation, turnout in comparable cities with on-cycle elections is almost double the turnout in cities with off-cycle elections.
- Studies show that shifting to on-cycle elections greatly reduces the underrepresentation of the working class, younger Americans, and racial and ethnic minorities in the local electorate.
- Minority representation in office gets a boost when elections are aligned, because higher turnout cities elect city officials who are much more demographically representative. My analysis shows that increasing turnout could reduce up to one-third of the underrepresentation of minorities on city councils and in mayoral offices.
With one small step, in short, suburbs and cities could switch from local elections dominated by tiny and unrepresentative slices of voters to local elections with broad and significantly more representative participation. Given that the vast majority of cities currently hold off-cycle elections, the potential to expand citizen participation in these vital arenas of American governance is enormous.
Local Government Works Better When It is Representative
Cities with higher turnout and greater minority representation tend to enact policies that are more in line with the needs and preferences of all citizens, including lower-income people and those from racial and ethnic minorities. In particular, higher turnout is associated with greater social welfare spending and increased hiring of minorities into city government posts – including police jobs.
My research with Jessica Trounstine of the University of California at Merced shows that these kinds of changes can reduce black frustration with the operations of local governments. Our analysis of local surveys and U.S. Census data shows that African Americans are generally less happy than whites with the performance of their city governments. But those same surveys show that when local governments spend more on social welfare and hire more African Americans, black dissatisfaction declines and blacks become as happy as whites with local government.
Getting It Done
Incumbent local officials often resist changing the timing of elections – after all, they won office in the current system. But the advantages are so clear that it ought to be possible to build coalitions for this change. In addition to improving participation and minority representation, synchronized local elections create strong cost-savings for local governments and taxpayers. Indeed, the primary motivation for this move has usually been cost savings. In most states, municipalities pay the entire administrative costs of stand-alone elections but have to cover only a fraction of the costs of on-cycle elections. The city of Concord, California, for example, estimated that the cost of running a stand-alone election would be $58,000, more than twice as much as the $25,000 estimate for holding the local election on-cycle.
Moreover, cities change their electoral timing regularly. A survey in California found that more than two-fifths of cities had changed the timing of municipal elections in recent years. A municipal ordinance is all that is required in most places. States can also require this sort of change – Arizona, for example, has passed legislation mandating that many of its cities hold local elections that coincide with statewide contests. And if governments do not act, citizens can get involved. Citizen’s groups can raise the issue; and in states with direct democracy, initiative campaigns can put local election timing on the statewide or local ballot.
Perhaps most importantly, the move to on-cycle elections is extremely popular. National survey data show that at least 70 percent of all Americans prefer to vote on one day. Critically, that support is non-partisan. Clear majorities of Democrats and Republicans prefer on-cycle elections.
Making sure that local elections happen at the same time as statewide and national contests is, in short, a straightforward, cost-saving reform that could go a long way toward making local governments more representative and responsive.