Special Interests and Off-Year Elections: The Case of Teachers Unions

It’s possible that when elections occur may affect the power of political actors.

It is an established fact that off-cycle elections attract lower voter turnout than on-cycle elections. I argue that the decrease in turnout that accompanies off-cycle election timing creates a strategic opportunity for organized interest groups. Members of interest groups with a large stake in an election outcome turn out at high rates regardless of election timing, and their efforts to mobilize and persuade voters have a greater impact when turnout is low. Consequently, policy made by officials elected in off-cycle elections should be more favorable to the dominant interest group in a polity than policy made by officials elected in on-cycle elections. I test this theory using data on school district elections in the U.S., in which teacher unions are the dominant interest group. I find that districts with off-cycle elections pay experienced teachers over 3 percent more than districts that hold on-cycle elections.

From a newly published paper by political scientist Sarah Anzia.  An ungated copy is here.  The findings are based, first, on a nationwide sample of school districts.  Here, Anzia finds that in districts with off-cycle elections, teachers of all levels of qualification (a BA degree, a master’s, etc.) are paid more.

In a case study of Minnesota, Anzia finds evidence that voter turnout—and in particular low voter turnout—is the reason why an interest group might be more powerful in off-cycle elections.  Indeed, she finds that drops in turnout are associated with higher pay for teachers.  Notably, these effects do not emerge when she examines superintendent salaries, suggesting that the effects are due to the power of teachers unions.

The point of the paper is not to pick on teachers unions.  It’s to show that election timing can affect the power of political actors.  Indeed, in another paper, Anzia shows that local political party organizations have routinely manipulated the timing of elections to their own advantage.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.