Study Finds Presidential Election Cycle Dramatically Influences Voter Turnout in California Mayoral Elections

 

California voter turnout during mayoral elections coincides with one critical factor; is there a presidential election occurring the same year? This was the finding of a report released today showing that when mayoral elections in the state are held during presidential election years, it can increase voter turnout by more than 20 percent on average.

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The study was conducted by the Center for Local Elections in American Politics (LEAP), which is part of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. The group’s study used data from 168 of the state’s 482 cities and included election results of over 1,000 elections held between February 1995 and November 2014.

It found that average voter turnout for cities that conduct “on cycle” mayoral elections (during a presidential election year) was 39.6 percent, while those held during midterm elections like Long Beach had an average turnout of about 28.5 percent. Meanwhile, "off cycle” elections held during odd years had the lowest turnout, at 17.5 percent.

“The timing of elections matters,” said John Lappie, a postdoctoral research associate with LEAP and the report’s co-author. “Specifically, turnout is drastically lower in off-cycle mayoral elections.”

In 2015, the state passed legislation that would require localities with low turnout rates in off-cycle elections to move elections in concurrence with statewide elections, with the hope of raising participation rates. Lappie said this move would likely increase voter turnout dramatically, once those cycles are switched to on-cycle.

Melissa Marschall, the director of LEAF and a political science professor at Rice, said that the report’s findings were not groundbreaking, because the the connection between low voter turnout and off-cycle elections had already been established, the LEAF study examined it over time with much more detail.

“Our analyses confirm that the deleterious effect of off-cycle elections goes back to the mid-1990s,” Marschall said. “However, we also find that contrary to conventional wisdom, voter participation in local elections is not necessarily on the decline. Rather, it has held relatively steady in elections held at both presidential and midterm cycles. On the other hand, for mayoral elections held off-cycle, the trend has been negative over time, particularly after 2002.”

The study found that off-cycle elections are disproportionately held in the state’s largest cities (more than 100,000 residents) and make up 45 percent of all mayoral contests. Sixty-nine percent of those cities are located in Los Angeles County. Mayor Robert Garcia was elected during the 2014 midterm election which had a voter participation rate of about 20.8 percent.


 

Although the city holds its elections in the spring of even years, they are not held concurrently with the statewide primaries. This year, the city will hold its municipal elections April 12, while the statewide primary, which will include the opportunity to vote for this year’s presidential candidates, will take place June 7. The only municipal votes that Long Beach residents might see in June will be the result of any April elections that are sent to a runoff vote.

According to the data reviewed in the report, the average voter turnout for mayoral elections in Long Beach is 13.8 percent.

It did note that the mayoral races in the city are highly contested, averaging seven candidates per race in the first round of voting, with no candidates running unopposed in the group’s data set. Runoff elections that push the vote into June, like the one that occurred between Garcia and Damon Dunn in 2014, are also common with four of the last six mayoral elections ending in a runoff. The city didn’t directly elect mayors until 1994 when Beverly O’Neill won the first of three consecutive contests, winning the last as a write-in candidate.


 

The city recently addressed one issue that it said may have contributed to low voter turnout by collaborating with the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder County Clerk’s office to streamline its June municipal election. It entered into the partnership last month in a move that the city hopes will make voting more convenient and more appealing for residents, as it will consolidate voting locations for both the municipal and statewide elections.

“It’s going to be a pretty significant event, because what it means for our voters is that it’s going to be a much more efficient and simplified experience for your voters in Long Beach,” Garcia said during the February meeting.

The study is the first of several to be released this year dealing with municipal elections by the group. Later studies will focus on trends in other states like Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, Minnesota, Louisiana, Washington and the Carolinas.



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