By Jan Brennan
The backdrop of the contentious 2020 Presidential election is a valuable opportunity to focus citizens on the importance and impact of their vote in local races and elections. While election turnout fluctuates based on competitiveness and voter interest, there is a persistent pattern of low participation in local elections. This low voter turnout has a profound effect on the daily life of communities, impacting everything from schools and housing to transportation, police and parks. This article identifies cities and towns that have been successful at activating voters in local elections and shares promising strategies they have implemented.
Since pundits predict half of Americans will be unhappy about the outcome of this year’s presidential race regardless of the winner, it is critical that eligible voters appreciate the importance of their vote to their local community. Implementing strategies that better connect residents with local races and issues can lay the groundwork for a more gratifying election experience and help influence those who typically vote only in major federal or state elections to increase their local election engagement.
Voter Turnout and Impact in Local Elections
The turnout for local elections is historically both low and less representative of community demographics. Across the U.S., only 15 to 27 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in their local election.1 Who Votes for Mayor?, a project of Portland State University that tracks and analyzes local election turnout, summarized their findings as “turnout is abysmally low.” This table shows some of the cities with the highest and lowest turnout rates in their most recent mayoral elections.
Not only is turnout for local elections low, but it is likely to be less representative of the income, age and ethnicity of the community. Affluent voters have 30-50 percent higher turnout in local elections than low income voters. Those 65+ are seven times more likely to vote in local elections than voters aged 18 to 34. The median age of local election voters is in the 60s, with the average in cities such as Miami, Las Vegas and Fort Worth as high as 66-68 years old. Whites vote at rates 20 percent higher in local elections than non-white voters.2 The overall impact is that local elected officials and policy are disproportionately influenced by older affluent white voters, undermining our representative democracy and the effectiveness of local governments. Recent research found that less representative elections contribute to poorer outcomes for minorities, including uneven prioritization of public spending.”3
Why Is Turnout Low in Local Elections?
Voters in local races and elections face the same structural and perceptual challenges that all voters face. Those barriers include lack of information on voting laws, not knowing where or how to register or vote, not having approved voter identification or needing translation or other assistance to vote. Another barrier is difficulty getting to the polls, whether because of distant and inconvenient polling locations, conflicts with work hours and/or lack of transportation. Perceptual barriers include political cynicism, for instance, the belief that “My vote doesn’t matter.” Obviously, when people believe their vote won’t make a difference, they are unlikely to cast a ballot.
Research on barriers specific to local elections suggests that lower turnout is frequently a result of a lack of awareness of the candidates and issues and a lack of understanding of the functions of local elected officials and their impacts on daily life. Most cities set their election dates in odd-numbered off-cycle years, with the idea that voters would be able to focus more effectively on municipal level issues without the distraction of major state and federal elections.
Election timing is the number one predictor of voter turnout. Voters are much more likely to turn out for consolidated, even-year elections where they are motivated by the highly visible federal and state contests but also continue to vote in down-ballot local races. When Baltimore shifted to on-cycle local elections in 2016, voter turnout soared from just 13 percent to 60 percent, and research shows that participation in on-cycle local elections is at least double that of off-cycle local elections.
Increasing Local Voting
Sadly, there is no silver bullet that will quickly and dramatically increase participation in local elections, but a mix of strategies and an incremental approach that builds participation and representativeness over time may be an effective approach. Our understanding of what motivates different groups to vote, “suggests that—depending on the audience—voter mobilization efforts should highlight one of three key factors influencing voting behavior: impact, convenience, or community”.4
Here are some effective strategies to consider based on these key turnout influences:
- Change local election timing
Changing the timing of local elections to even-years aligned with major election cycles is the strategy with the greatest proven impact on voting in local races. Counties, cities and townships typically have considerable flexibility in establishing local election dates. Changing election timing may involve revisions to the city charter, while in other jurisdictions the action can be taken by the local election administrator or election board. Clustering of more races on each ballot can also be achieved through consolidated local elections that allow multiple municipalities, school districts, and other designated special districts to have a single election and ballot. In addition to increasing voter participation in local elections, clustering more races in fewer elections can result in cost savings.
- Remove barriers to participation
Many rules that can be a barrier to voter registration and turnout, such as acceptable forms of identification, voter registration systems and access to mail or absentee ballots, are controlled at the state level, but counties can actively lobby their state legislatures, secretaries of state and elections divisions to address these barriers. Strategies such as permitting mail ballots, same-day registration and online registration have a demonstrated ability to increase overall voter turnout. On average, states with same day registration have 10 percent higher turnouts than those without.Counties must comply with state law but may have opportunities to reduce voting barriers through the establishment of mail ballots and convenient polling locations, hours and early voting. Research demonstrates that reducing the number of polling locations makes it more difficult for some voters to reach the polls and generally lowers voter turnout. There has also been considerable attention to the shuttering of polling locations in racially diverse neighborhoods, resulting in reduced turnout. Some cities have addressed this barrier by providing free transportation on election day. Lynchburg, Virginia, and Los Angeles, California, are examples of cities that make public transit buses and trains free on election day.When considering polling locations, counties should analyze voting data to identify “voting deserts” where rates of participation are less than half of the overall county rates. For example, more than 20 percent of residents in Columbia, South Carolina, live in in voting deserts. Even where overall voter turnout is relatively high, there may be geographic pockets of under-participation that can be targeted.
- Incentivize Participation
Local elections provide opportunities for innovation, including strategies for incentivizing election education and participation. Run-off elections have notoriously low voter participation, so Los Angeles Board of Education directly incentivized voter participation in its District 5 run-off. Each person casting a vote was entered into a Voteria lottery with one lucky voter winning $25,000. Four percent of voters surveyed indicated they were influenced by the lottery to vote, resulting in a 10 percent voter turnout compared with 1 percent turnout in a previous run-off.5
Election education is another area for possible incentives. Businesses can promote election information by printing voter information on receipts, distributing voter registration forms with paychecks, posting flyers in retail store windows and making handouts available at the check-out counter. Think creatively about those that interact with underrepresented voting populations. For example, some cities have provided incentives for landlords to distribute information to low-income tenants.
- Make the case for the impact of local elections
Many voters do not appreciate the scope and impact of local elections. In the U.S. we elect more than 500,000 local officials who control over $2 trillion in local government spending. Residents may not be familiar with some of the roles and functions of local elected officials, so consider making available role descriptions that explain the type of decisions the official makes and how the position impacts residents.Get creative and involve residents in creating educational materials and events focused on local elections. Some counties have used community or student contests to generate posters and other election collateral. Local election events can provide education on the how-to of registering and voting, as well as on the candidates and issues. Popular examples include “voting 101” workshops, “know your ballot” events and candidate forums.
- Identify and customize for target audiences
Voter data highlights populations underrepresented in local voting, including low income residents, high school and college students and people of color. These are good candidates for targeted outreach efforts. Targeting means segmentation of outreach efforts to use the messaging and communication methods most effective with that population. Outreach to marginalized communities should target recruitment and training of election and poll workers, as well as mobilization of voters. Many communities focus outreach efforts on “likely” voters, reinforcing previous participation patterns rather than activating less likely voters. Research shows that 30 to 50 percent of people who turn out due to get-out-the-vote efforts in one election will continue to vote in future elections, incrementally building greater and more diverse local voting over time.
- Leverage local gathering points and organizations
Local elections offer the chance to interact with voters where they gather rather than expecting voters to seek out information and support. Cities and counties can enhance their efforts by offering voter registration forms and assistance together with other services, such as housing, health, education, financial and social services. One voter shared how they were activated after receiving voter registration information when they applied for a parking permit.Local organizations can also play a critical role in voter outreach and engagement to their members. Partners may range from faith organizations to social clubs, the local community college and organizations for people of color. Research shows that at least half of black voters did not receive any election-related contact from organizations, so that is a critical gap that local elections can fill. Libraries are another key community gathering spot that can partner to activate local voters.
- Change local election timing
With so much at stake, we need to do more to convince voters of the importance and impact of voting in local elections and races. Increasing local voter turnout will also make these elections more representative and inclusive of diverse residents and make local government more responsive to their needs.
The time to plan and implement strategies to increase voter engagement in local elections is now. Take advantage of citizen interest in the upcoming federal and state elections to ensure that they also appreciate the role of local elected officials and the ways in which local decisions impact the everyday lives of residents. Ultimately, the goal is to make engagement in local elections the norm and embedded in the culture of the community.
Jan Brennan is a Senior Fellow of the National Civic League and Mountain West Director for the nonpartisan Campus Election Engagement Project. Jan’s passion is to promote civic learning and engagement, from the classroom to creative public spaces and the ballot box, applying her experience with the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs and Education Commission of the States’ National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement.
1 Hajnal, Z.L. (October 22,2018). Why Does No One Vote in Local Elections? New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/22/opinion/why-does-no-one-vote-in-local-elections.html
2 Born, K. (April 25, 2016). Increasing Voter Turnout: What, If Anything, Can Be Done? Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/increasing_voter_turnout_what_if_anything_can_be_done; Maciag, M. (January, 2017). Millennials let their grandparents decide local elections. Governing. Retrieved from https://www.governing.com/topics/elections/gov-voter-turnout-generations-millennials.html.
3 Maciag, M. (October 2014). Voter Turnout Plummeting in Local Elections. Governing. Retrieved from https://www.governing.com/topics/politics/gov-voter-turnout-municipal-elections.html
4 Ibid ii.
5 Ibid v.