Why Is Voter Turnout for Mayoral Elections Always So Abysmally Low?

At least this guy voted today in New York City.

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Reuters

New York City is holding precisely the kind of local election today that years of data suggest yields low turnout. It's an off year in the national election cycle. There are no presidential candidates on the ballot. There aren't any mid-term congressional decisions to make, either. It's not even a general election. And these are the jobs up for grabs on the primary ballot: mayor, comptroller, public advocate, district attorney, city council, borough president. And here people really start to yawn.

For other obvious reasons – the national spotlight, the multiple sex scandals, the close mayoral contest, the Bloomberg-less novelty of it all – New York's election today is probably as exciting as local elections get. And yet the turnout is still expected to be fewer than a million residents in a city with 4 million voters. (Last time New York City did this, in 2009, only 11 percent of registered Democrats voted.)

From just this morning, Gothamist has rounded up some great photos of depressingly empty polling places.

The New York race comes on the heels of another major mayoral election earlier this year in Los Angeles. In that election, a mere 21 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls, marking the city's lowest turnout in a century (if you weren't watching, Eric Garcetti won).

So what gives? Mayors are fond of saying they have the best job in politics because they actually get to do stuff that has an impact on real people with whom they get to interact right there on the street. And it’s probably true that your life is more directly affected by the decisions that come from your city hall than those that come from the U.S. Capitol. So why, then, do people seem to care so much less about these elections than national ones? If anything, we should probably care about them more.

To put this in some context, Americans are notoriously lazy about going to the polls, any polls, even for the really big national races (Australians have compulsory voting; given the choice in the last national U.S. election, just 57.5 percent of Americans voted). But research coming out in a forthcoming issue of the journal Political Research Quarterly found that across 340 mayoral elections in 144 large American cities dating back to 1996, turnout averaged only 25.8 percent.

Is it the candidates (they're dull)? The nature of the campaigns (they're not competitive enough)? The timing (didn't we just have an election)? Political science research has suggested that low turnout in local elections has real consequences for who gets elected  – and who doesn't get represented – as political scientist Aaron C. Weinschenk points out today on the U.S. polisci blog of the London School of Economics.

Weinschenk and Thomas Holbrook gathered the data on those 340 U.S. elections, looking for clues as to what might make turnout increase. For one thing, they found that when more money is spent on campaigns – a sign of the effort that goes into them – turnout goes up. However, the more money campaigns spend, the smaller those turnout returns become:

"Campaigns, Mobilization, and Turnout in Mayoral Elections" by Holbrook and Weinschenk in Political Research Quarterly

The difference between spending $5 and $10 per eligible voter is substantial, although the benefit decreases from there. Holbrook and Weinschenk suspect campaign spending influences turnout in both direct and indirect ways. Directly, campaign resources fund get-out-the-vote campaigns. Indirectly, if you spend more money giving voters more information (or signaling partisan differences), then would-be voters don't have to go learn about what all these candidates stand for by themselves. The information costs of voting go down.

Turnout also increases, unsurprisingly, when local elections coincide with national ones, but the effect might surprise you. Modeling all of the data they collected, Holbrook and Weinschenk found that by shifting an election from a non-presidential election year to November of a presidential year, voter turnout goes up by 18.5 percentage points on average (you get an 8.7 point boost from scheduling a local election alongside midterms). Increase spending on campaigns, and that can bump turnout by seven points. Competitive races with a narrower margin of victory can also swing turnout by almost 18 points.

There are only a few problems with these proposals. As Weinschenk writes:

Of course, the types of changes suggested above are unlikely to occur. Most elected officials are probably not interested in better-financed opponents or other instruments that would increase political competition.

Local elections are also often scheduled apart from national ones for a reason: to insulate them from the politics of larger races. Holbrook and Weinschenk suggest this means we might have to make some tradeoffs here. But the cost certainly seems worth it to have more people weigh in on the elected officials with arguably the biggest impact on their lives.

Top image of New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio leaving the polling booth today: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.