A voter casts his vote in the Summit Presbyterian Church during primary elections to replace incumbent Mayor Michael Nutter in Philadelphia on May 19, 2015. REUTERS/Mark Makela

A short history of how America’s urban voters stopped showing up at the polls.

As far as recent history is concerned, voter turnout in most major U.S. city elections can accurately be described as anemic. On Tuesday in Philadelphia, just about 27 percent of registered voters went to the polls to give Jim Kenney a landslide victory in the city's Democratic mayoral primary. In Los Angeles, 23 percent bothered to show up in 2013 for the sleepy election that Mayor Eric Garcetti won. Even New York's high-profile 2013 election, which brought Mayor Bill de Blasio to power, attracted just 26 percent of registered voters to cast a ballot, the lowest turnout in that city since at least 1953. For many observers, that election signaled a historic repudiation of the aggressive police tactics and warm embrace of the super-rich that characterized the Michael Bloomberg era. But in a larger sense, it also proved that most New Yorkers didn't care either way.

The question of why U.S. voters turn out in such low numbers, in all sorts of elections, has become a perennial one: Americans, caught up working longer hours and in thrall to handheld electronic distraction, seem unconcerned about who runs their government. Turnout for presidential elections is low but actually rather consistent, hovering between about 49 percent and 64 percent for a century (compared to between 33 and 49 percent in mid-terms). But local election turnout averaged a much lower 21 percent as of 2011 and has, according to a differently measured set of available data on local elections (a sticky point I'll get to later), declined sharply from the mid-twentieth century.

In academia, turnout is a question mostly tackled by political scientists who look at data reflecting things like "campaign intensity" to figure out what factors might encourage people to vote in greater numbers. Thomas M. Holbrook and Aaron C. Weinschenk found that more campaign spending on behalf of challengers, shifting local elections to coincide with national contests, and making nonpartisan elections partisan are all factors that could drive higher turnout. In their examination of the character of local government, Zoltan L. Hajnal and Paul G. Lewis argue that "less outsourcing of city services, the use of direct democracy, and more control in the hands of elected rather than appointed officials" would also be helpful.

But history, an academic discipline typically unconcerned with voter turnout, might provide a more useful lens to begin exploring how major U.S. cities actually arrived in this state of dismal non-participation. Historical data on four big cities published by Governing last year prompts me to suggest a hypothesis. Turnout peaked in these local elections starting in the late 1960s through to the early 1980s, when intense civil rights activism translated street power to electoral might and met white backlash at the polls. I suspect that political machines drove voters to the polls through the mid-twentieth century; racially-charged elections then heightened voter attention; and, finally, the shift from white dominance to white population decline remade urban politics into the quiet affair (in relative terms) that it remains today.

Philip A. Klinkner, the James S. Sherman Professor of Government at Hamilton College, says this is a plausible explanation.

"On the one side you had very mobilized nonwhite voters saying it's our turn, now it's our chance to finally assert political power, and we've been essentially under the thumb of these urban machines … And then you also had white voters who felt like now is the last chance" to preserve control, says Klinkner. "Urban politics of that time was much more contentious in the aftermath of riots and civil disorder."

The Governing data dates back to the early 1950s and covers elections in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia.

In L.A., turnout peaked at 76 percent of registered voters in a fierce 1969 contest pitting white incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty against black City Councilman Tom Bradley. Yorty was a Democrat who came to embrace the state's Un-American Activities Committee, Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War and, ultimately, the Republican Party. According to the Los Angeles Times, the hyperbolic and race-baiting Yorty once announced that the city had become "an experimental area for taking over of a city by a combination of bloc voting, black power, left-wing radicals, and if you please, identified communists."

Bradley lost that election but beat Yorty four years later. Yorty, according to the Times, blamed his loss on low turnout in white San Fernando Valley. (Bradley was no radical, ultimately winning the support of both the Downtown WASP and Westside Jewish establishments, according to the scholar Mike Davis, and implementing a staunchly pro-development agenda.)

Philadelphia's high point came in 1971, when 77 percent of voters turned out for an election that narrowly sent Frank Rizzo, a swaggering police commissioner with a national reputation for channelling working-class-white-anti-civil rights animus, to City Hall.

Chicago reached its 82-percent high-point in 1983 when a rainbow coalition of black, Latino and progressive white voters elected Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor. Turnout later declined during the long reign of the second Mayor Daley.

In New York, the post-Tammany Hall machine turnout peaked in 1969, when 81 percent of voters cast ballots in a racially loaded fight pitting incumbent Mayor John Lindsay, a liberal pro-civil rights Republican, against Democratic and Republican challengers touting law-and-order programs. Lindsay lost the Republican primary to Staten Island conservative John Marchi, setting up a three-way election with Lindsay on the Liberal Party ticket. Bronx-raised Mario Procaccino, the Democratic candidate, angered black voters with his call for tough policing—perceived as a lightly muffled dog whistle racist sentiment.

In this era, crime was both a real fear and a racialized hysteria that became politically weaponized. The years preceding the 1969 election had witnessed massive black uprisings in Watts, Newark, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington D.C.—and also in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. But in reality, racist law-and-order politics took root long before the uprisings and the 1960s crime spike. Southern white supremacists had long called for "law-and-order," as the political scientist Naomi Murakawa argues, and it was their association of black protest with black criminality that gained political purchase in the North.

"We must stop coddling the criminals and pampering the punks," said Procaccino at the time, who unfavorably compared public safety in New York to Vietnam during his campaign. "The do-gooders and bleeding hearts must stop handcuffing the police."

For all sides, the city's future seemed to be at stake. Lindsay claimed he had successfully turned back the "tide of physical and spiritual decay" washing over the city, and criticized "reactionary elements" in his party "that seek to destroy the progressive traditions of Republicanism in New York." But the contest also crystallized another, under-appreciated genre of American racism. Supporters of Procaccino, who strongly resented charges that he was a racist, felt that "Limousine Liberals" backing Lindsay (Procaccino is credited with inventing that politically durable term) had their own WASP-based animosity toward working-class "white ethnic" Italians.

Black voters, along with a diverse and divergent white electorate, mobilized to vote in elections that they perceived as defining their place and very survival in the city.

*****

What at first blush might seem to be a tale of rising U.S. voter apathy appears to have a lot to do with racism, suburbanization, deindustrialization, and the restructuring of the great American metropolis. The white populations of major northern U.S. cities peaked around the halfway point of the 20th century and then declined, often quite rapidly. After World War II, white people taking advantage of racially exclusionary government-subsidized mortgages relocated to the suburbs along with many well-paying jobs; black people drawn north from the Jim Crow South in search of vanishing manufacturing jobs were relegated to dilapidated ghetto housing and rising unemployment. The urban crisis, as the historian Tom Sugrue makes clear, began well before the crime spikes and black uprisings of the 1960s—and before the election of black mayors.

New York went from 92 percent non-Hispanic white in 1940, to roughly 63 percent in 1970, to 43 percent by 1990, according to the U.S. Census. Los Angeles and Chicago's non-Hispanic white population had dipped below 50 percent by 1980. Cities like Baltimore and Detroit, which I'm not analyzing here, quickly flipped from majority white to strong black majorities.

Los Angeles’s shift was particularly transformative. Black arrivals during the Second Great Migration, and immigrants from Latin America and Asia, changed L.A. from a native-born white Protestant stronghold to a diverse global metropolis.

Urban demographics across the country were remade amid anxieties over economic decline. The result was fierce ballot-box fights to control changing cities. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 solidified black voters' move into the Democratic Party fold. But in northern cities, as throughout the South, mobilized black voters continued to fight an entrenched white party establishment for power.

That fight's outcome was decided not only by growing black political power but also by white relocation to suburbs, and the creation of the newly re-segregated metropolis: many white voters who had turned out in such high numbers, and the political systems to which they were attached, disappeared. That is to say, the white voters with long ties to neighborhood, union and political networks were no longer part of those systems after they moved away.

"The machines declined in a lot of those places [and] minority voters really rejected machine politics," says Klinkner. (L.A., which had low turnout in the 1950s, is a more complicated exception: it never had a classic big city machine). "The machines really were a big reason why people turned out the vote. Because you had these organizations that essentially dragged people to the polls."

Deindustrialization also undercut local governments' economic power over business and rendered them beholden to state government for critical funding. Lower stakes in every sense likely meant less voter interest. "Once non-whites became established in mayors' offices and city councils, the sense of urgency on both sides waned," e-mails Klinkner.

*****

It's important to state one key caveat: the data on local election turnout in these four cities is of course limited by the fact that it consists of the percentage of registered voters who voted. Scholars of national elections measure turnout against the total number of people likely eligible to vote. Using that data, the political scientists Michael P. McDonald and Samuel L. Popkin have shown that voter turnout in national elections has not, contrary to popular belief, actually experienced a decline. Instead, the number of residents of the United States who are not eligible to vote, including undocumented immigrants and barred ex-offenders, has increased. Voter registration numbers are also notoriously suspect because so many dead people and former residents are still listed on the rolls. But no one, as far as I can tell, has applied this more comprehensive method to local election turnout farther back than the late 1990s.

"There probably has been a decline in [local] turnout, but it may be overstated some," says McDonald, especially because the 1993 federal "Motor Voter" law—which, among other measures, required states to offer voter registration at the DMV—inflated voter rolls with people who wouldn't vote. The expansion of the electorate to include low-turnout 18-20 year olds in 1971 did the same.

Still, the decline in city voting appears to be real. The high and then precipitously declining percentage of registered voters in city elections who vote is wholly unlike the relatively steady trends that have prevailed in national elections. And this fact is especially concerning because who turns out in local elections might actually matter more.

As the political scientists Zoltan L. Hajnal and Jessica Trounstine have noted, voter turnout in national elections makes relatively little difference because the "preferences of nonvoters do not differ markedly from the preferences of voters," and "there is little evidence to suggest that increasing or decreasing turnout would change who wins and loses."

But when it comes to local voting, turnout is uneven. And consequential.

Low turnout locally is uneven in terms of race, class, age and education attainment, according to Hajnal. Whites, the college-educated, the affluent, older people and the full-time employed are all more likely to vote than non-whites, the less educated, the poor, the young and the unemployed.

Hajnal writes that while studies have found little impact from disparate turnout in presidential and congressional races, such disparities can have a huge impact in local races. Increasing "local turnout… might eliminate almost one quarter of the underrepresentation of Latinos and Asian Americans on city councils across the country." Further, "turnout is closely linked to the policies that governments pursue. Municipalities with higher turnout spend more on welfare and other redistributive programs favored by minorities and less on areas favored by more advantaged white interests."

Some U.S. cities that witnessed white population loss in the last century are currently experiencing something like a reverse migration. These shifting demographics could not only decrease black political power but also alter turnout dynamics in general. It’s unclear exactly what the long-term result will be. In Washington, D.C., turnout in the 2014 mayoral election was a relatively high 39 percent of registered voters, which the Washington Post notes appears to have been in part driven by a (successful) marijuana legalization measure on the ballot. Non-black voter turnout in D.C. was estimated to have increased by twice as much as black turnout since 2010, "resulting in the black share of the electorate slipping below 50 percent for the first time in years." And the vote among young adults, which in D.C. includes many white transplants, soared.

*****

Turnout in the 2008 presidential election was significantly higher than most years going back to 1968. In part, this might be because the Obama campaign used technology to recreate some of the turnout machinery that long prevailed in big cities, including by helping people organize voters in their communities.

"That mimics in some way what the old ward bosses used to do," says McDonald. "They knew their neighborhoods."

Turnout in mid-term congressional and gubernatorial elections, however, generally has remained depressed.

Americans pay more attention to presidential elections in part because the Democratic and Republican candidates represent opposing moral orders. It's a narrative matter, and voters are the protagonists: are you the kind of American who supports guns and rugged independence or the kind that embraces gay marriage and care for the poor? But local elections in recent years no longer emphatically ask voters to declare what sort of American (or Philadelphian, New Yorker, Angelino or Chicagoan) they are in the way that voting for Obama or Romney does. (A problem no doubt exacerbated by the decline in local newspapers and television news.) The Black Lives Matter movement, with its focus on policing, could raise interest in local elections. So far, it mostly hasn't.

"The political space really isn't as large in the cities anymore," says Klinkner. "There's been a sort of narrowing of the urban agenda. Everybody's sort of tough on crime. Everybody recognizes that you can't go back to the old days of white dominance in city hall."

And as a result, it seems, the vast majority of us hardly care.

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