Off-Cycle Elections and the Parties

In a recent Monkey Cage post, Brian Schaffner, Wouter Van Erve, and Ray LaRaja seek to explain why towns like Ferguson, Missouri have such a disparity between the percent of the population that is African American and the percent of the city council that is African American. (For more on this, please see my response at Pacific Standard). Part of the story, they say, is turnout. Ferguson has off-cycle city elections; they’re held in April of odd-numbered years, instead of coinciding with presidential elections. As a result, turnout is far lower for municipal elections, and also seems more biased in favor of white residents. (Between the 2012 presidential elections and the 2013 city council elections, white turnout in Ferguson dropped from 55% to 17%; black turnout dropped from 54% to 6%.)

There’s certainly some logic to this. If elections are held far from presidential ones, they’ll tend to receive a lot less media attention, which usually means that poorer and less educated voters will be less likely to participate. And those trends disproportionately affect Democrats and African Americans.

So we should probably expect to see Democratic leaders opposing off-cycle elections and Republicans supporting them, right? After all, it’s Democrats who tend to support efforts to increase voter turnout, while Republican leaders are willing to accept lower turnout in the name of fighting voter fraud (even if that pretty much never happens). Are Democrats trying to end off-cycle elections?

Far from it. Sarah Anzia recently wrote a dissertation on election timing (I haven’t read the book version yet), and the findings are pretty fascinating. In short, interest groups have an easier time dominating the low turnout, low media exposure environment of off-cycle elections. In cities that have off-cycle elections for city councils and school boards, we tend to see police officers, firefighters, and teachers receiving higher pay and better benefits. After all, it’s these local public employees (and their immediate friends and families) who often have the most at stake in municipal elections; they’ll vote no matter what. Most of the rest of the population simply sees no need to participate. That drop in voter turnout makes a huge difference in terms of policy.

And this has an important relationship to the parties. The unions and public employee groups that tend to benefit from these off-cycle elections also tend to lean Democratic. As a result, it is Republican state legislators across the country who tend to push to synchronize local elections with presidential ones, while Democratic legislators protect the off-cycle elections where they exist. That is, Republicans are pushing for higher turnout while Democrats want to keep it lower for municipal elections.

You could label this hypocritical, but basically, it’s just parties advocating for their constituent interests, which is as old as democracy. Voter turnout, after all, is simply a means to producing certain policy ends, and the parties will tend to push whatever rules help reach those ends.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.