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Press Release · March 29, 2002

Timing Is Everything: Off-Cycle Elections Discourage Voter Turnout In Local Contests

SAN FRANCISCO, California, March 29, 2002 – Timing is the single most important factor in determining voter turnout in municipal elections, according to a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). The new analysis finds vast differences in turnout among California cities – ranging from 10 percent to 89 percent of registered voters – and attributes half of that difference to whether or not local contests take place concurrently with statewide elections.

Drawing from detailed questionnaires completed by 350 city clerks across California (74 percent of California’s cities in 2000), authors Zoltan Hajnal, Paul Lewis, and Hugh Louch found that voter turnout was nearly 36 percent greater in cities where municipal elections coincided with presidential elections, compared to cities with “off-cycle” or “local-only” elections. When mayoral and council contests were held on the same date as gubernatorial elections, turnout was 26 percent higher. And despite the abysmal turnout during the most recent statewide primary, even city elections held concurrently with primaries drew 21 percent more votes for municipal contests.

The study estimates that if all cities that held “local-only” contests moved their elections to coincide with a presidential election date, 1.7 million more state residents would have cast ballots in their city council races.

“Increases like these are significant because voter turnout for local elections is currently so low,” says Hajnal, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. Indeed, the study, Municipal Elections in California: Turnout, Timing, and Competition, finds that in the average city, turnout among registered voters is only 48 percent for city council elections and 44 percent for mayoral races. Turnout appears ever smaller when measured as a percentage of the entire voting-age population – 32 percent for council races and 28 percent for mayoral elections.

“Elections at the city level can affect people’s day-to-day lives in profound ways, but in many cases a relatively small number of voters are making decisions for large and diverse communities,” added Lewis, a political scientist and research fellow at PPIC.

Related Findings:

  • The reelection rate for incumbent mayors and councilmembers is higher in cities that hold their local contests concurrently with state or national races. Some analysts argue that concurrent elections benefit incumbents because voter attention is focused on statewide or national races.

  • Voter participation increases slightly (4%) when there are one or more propositions on a city ballot. Participation also increases when there is greater competition for an office.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to objective, nonpartisan research on economic, social, and political issues that affect the lives of Californians. The Institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. David W. Lyon is President and CEO of PPIC.