Eitan Hersh: Do Off-Year Elections Suppress the Vote?

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[Image courtesy of yale]

Yesterday’s election saw a number of interesting results: re-election of Kentucky’s Secretary of State, defeat of ranked-choice voting in Duluth, MN, Ohio voters saying yes to redistricting reform and no to marijuana and numerous bouts of pollworkers vs. e-pollbooks that went initially to the machines.

But a piece in yesterday’s FiveThirtyEight, Yale political scientist Eitan Hersh suggests that off-cycle elections, intentionally or not, may be suppressing the vote – and that Democrats, who generally make eliminating suppression their battle cry, are to blame:

In the ongoing fight between Democrats and Republicans over election procedures like voter ID and early voting, the Democrats are supposedly the champions of higher turnout and reducing barriers to participation. But when it comes to scheduling off-cycle elections like those taking place today, the Democratic Party is the champion of voter suppression. 

Hersh uses data from a new book by Berkeley scholar Sarah Anzia to show that, as a rule, Democrats tend to oppose consolidated elections or, at the very least, support legislation that would permit them as opposed to requiring them. The explanation, he points out, begins to resemble some of the policy arguments by Republicans they oppose on other issues:

Why do Democrats and Democratic-aligned groups prefer off-cycle elections? When school boards and other municipal offices are up for election at odd times, few run-of-the-mill voters show up at the polls, but voters with a particular interest in these elections — like city workers themselves — show up in full force. The low-turnout election allows their policy goals to dominate.

Anzia shows that off-cycle elections lead to higher salaries and better health and retirement benefits for teachers and public employees. Anzia studies these effects in many different ways. The simplest way is by looking at eight states that allow local governments to set their own election dates. She compares school districts that hold school board elections on-cycle and off-cycle within the same state. Controlling for factors that might make districts different from one another — like their population size, income, racial composition, partisan leanings and how urban or rural they are — Anzia found that the maximum base teacher salary is over 4 percent higher in districts with off-cycle elections.

Higher salaries and better benefits for municipal employees can be a good outcome. What is interesting is that this outcome is the result of a deliberate move to hold municipal elections at times when few voters are participating.

Proponents of the off-cycle strategy argue that local issues get drowned out when local elections are held concurrent with presidential or congressional elections. People who show up to vote in those big elections may not be equipped to weigh in on the local issues. Anzia quotes a Texas school official who defends off-cycle elections because they bring out “an educated voter … people who really care about the issues and who are passionate about their district.” In off-cycle elections, proponents claim, the electorate is a concentrated set of voters who are engaged in the local issues, which yields better results for the community.

For readers who are sympathetic to the perspective of the off-cycle election proponents (typically Democrats), it is worth noting that these are very much the same arguments that Republicans might make in favor of voting restrictions that make voting a little bit harder for the average American. Just like voter ID or voter-registration requirements, off-cycle elections impose a cost on political participation. The cost is evidently high, since very few people participate in local elections when they are held in odd-numbered years. Maybe the cost leads to a more enlightened electorate. Or maybe it is Democratic-sponsored voter suppression.

This is a fascinating notion; whether or not you believe that voter suppression is an intentional strategy – and many people do, likely convinced that the other party does it and theirs doesn’t – it’s important to remember that any change in election laws and procedures can have significant participation effects. The challenge, as always, is to understand and explain those effects without resorting to arguments about the “right kind” of voter.

For the record, I don’t think that “voter suppression” is a goal of either party, but it is undeniable that any voting change will help (or hurt) some voters more than others. Being aware of these differences – and giving election officials, for whom every voter who shows up is the “right kind” of voter, the resources they need to do their jobs – should be paramount in any discussion about election laws and procedures.

It’s a constant struggle … stay tuned.

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