Some Lafayette residents were dismayed by the low voter turnout for the April 28 millage renewal election. Only 8.1 percent of registered voters in the parish showed up to the polls. For those who proudly sport their “I Voted” stickers after every election, the widespread abdication of a fundamental civic duty is demoralizing. It’s tempting to decry everyone who didn’t vote as apathetic and to blame the low numbers on a preference for showing up to Festival International instead of the voting booth. But the root causes of low voter turnout have much more to do with the timing and structure of elections than any individual factors.
Across the country, participation in local elections has been on a significant decline for more than a decade. As trust in government has plummeted, a trickle-down malaise occurred. A 2016 Portland State University study of mayoral elections held in 30 major U.S. cities found that in only 10 of them did more than a third of citizens participate. Nationwide, many state and local elections are held on a different cycle than federal elections. Support for these off-cycle elections was largely a result of progressive era reforms that aimed to reduce the power of local political party leaders to control municipal elections. But as political parties are instrumental in informing voters about elections and encouraging participation, reducing their role in the process had the unintended effect of decreasing voter participation.
So how can we increase turnout? There are many reforms worth exploring. Automatic voter registration, recently adopted in Oregon, has had promising results. Also, ballot design reforms hold potential. The introduction of rank-choice voting for candidates has helped increase turnout in Maine and San Francisco. But the single most powerful tool for increasing turnout, increasing representation, and ensuring that more citizens have a say in their government is changing the timing of elections.
The simplest change is to pair local elections with other statewide and national elections. For many Americans, voting is a civic habit, but that habit is fundamentally connected with the national election cycle. In fact, with 68.6 percent of our registered voters participating in the 2016 presidential election, Louisiana was among the top 10 of all states in voter turnout. While voter education and get-out-the-vote efforts are necessary and worthwhile for increasing participation in local elections, their effect on turnout pales in comparison with adjustments to the timing of elections. Frankly, it’s much easier to change election dates than it is to change the habits of voters.
Research by Zoltan L. Hajnal, a leading expert on voter turnout, finds that on average, holding local elections on-cycle can increase turnout by 30 percent. Recent turnout numbers in Lafayette support this idea. Off-cycle millage renewal elections recently had turnout rates that ranged from a dismal 2.5 percent in the April 2016 election to 13.4 percent in November 2017. However, parish races and local tax issues on the ballot with higher profile elections have had much higher turnouts: 40.4 percent in October 2015 paired with the mayoral and gubernatorial elections, 50.4 percent paired with the midterm congressional election in November 2014. In short, timing is everything.
Frankly, it’s much easier to change election dates than it is to change the habits of voters.
In Louisiana, state, parish and municipal elections are routinely held off-cycle. The election calendar is created at the state level, with dates set years in advance. Among the slate of potential dates, however, there is some latitude in local elections. Local governments have choices in when they hold “proposition elections,” which cover votes on items like property taxes, millage renewals and bonds. In 2018, for instance, proposition elections could be held on March 24, April 28, Nov. 6 and Dec. 8.
In fact, Louisiana is notable because the sheer number of elections outpaces many other states. Prior to his recent resignation amid charges of sexual harassment, Secretary of State Tom Schedler actively campaigned to reduce the number of elections. Voters, he argued, experience election fatigue, driving down turnout on the whole. Moreover, shifting the timing of elections would also save money. The costs associated with holding elections adds up, from paying poll workers to moving and maintaining voting equipment. The parish bears part of the election cost each time a local issue is placed on the ballot.
So, why persist in holding off-cycle elections? Some argue that parish and city governments purposefully choose off-dates to drive down turnout with the hope that taxes will be more likely to pass. If this is the parish government’s strategy, it’s a poor one, as research has shown that low turnout favors those who are opposed to taxes, not those who generally benefit from or support them. Voters who participate in off-cycle local elections tend to be older, more economically affluent, and white, all factors associated with a higher anti-tax propensity.
When elections coincide with state or national races, Hajnal’s research has shown that there is greater minority representation, both racially and economically. Higher turnout also leads to more minority representation among elected officials. This disparity is evident in Lafayette as well. In the April 2018 election, turnout varied widely by precinct, from 1.5 percent to 22.3 percent. The most economically disadvantaged precincts had the lowest turnout. There was also a pronounced racial gap with a 10 percent turnout rate for whites but only 2.65 percent for blacks.
Another reason off-cycle elections persist is that they benefit organized interests. As research by political scientist Sarah Anzia demonstrates, organized groups are more likely to be made up of highly motivated voters. These organizations have the ability to mobilize their members, which have a disproportionate impact during low-turnout elections. They also reap the policy benefits of electing representatives who support their causes.
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, low-turnout elections are particularly susceptible to the effects of organized campaign spending. For low costs, organized interests can mobilize a relatively small number of voters who can sway election outcomes. The success of campaign finance in Lafayette elections was recently demonstrated by the work of Citizens for a New Louisiana, an outgrowth of anti-tax Facebook group Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes, which successfully mobilized voters to oppose the library millage renewal in April. With routinely low voter turnout in local tax elections, monied interests need only motivate a few hundred additional voters in order sway the outcome. Indeed, the library renewal failed by only a few hundred votes. Citizens for a New Louisiana pumped around $20,000 into a mailer and radio ad campaign.
The historical argument that holding local elections off-cycle would protect them from outside or partisan interests may have once been correct. Today, however, continuing to hold off-cycle elections empowers those with money and resources. Local governments make deliberate choices about when to hold these elections. The decision to hold high-cost, low-turnout elections is a choice to privilege the voices of a small segment of voters. The remedy is readily available and reduces costs. If we want to ensure that election results represent the majority of the community, then it’s time to change our election schedule.