Shifting local elections on-cycle enhances political representation, promotes voter turnout, and encourages accountability in local government
NEW YORK, NY – School-board meetings have become the new frontier in the culture war, with parents and elected officials across the country arguing over a range of issues, from Covid-19 learning protocols to the inclusion of race-driven pedagogy (sometimes called critical race theory) in K-12 curricula. But the root of the tension may derive, at least in part, from a deeper source; considering that turnout for school-board elections is usually a miniscule 10-15%, it’s likely that many parents feel misrepresented by the school boards elected to represent them. Low turnout rates in local elections damage the connection between citizens’ views and actual governance.
In a new issue brief for the Manhattan Institute, Michael Hartney explains that the convening of local elections at odd times throughout the year, rather than at the same time regular state and federal elections take place, accounts for much of the low turnout. Citing the outsized role of special interests in low-turnout, off-cycle elections, he makes the case for moving elections on-cycle, to Novembers of even years when regular state and federal elections take place. He emphasizes that doing so offers the single most effective path for dramatically increasing turnout, while refuting the notion that higher turnout will lead to less informed voters.
Among the most important reasons states should consolidate their local elections, Hartney lists:
- Greater and more equitable participation;
- Lower election administration costs;
- Reducing the power of special interests;
- Promoting greater accountability; and
- Enhancing political representation and government responsiveness.
Localism is a cherished hallmark of a decentralized, flexible American democracy that can accommodate an array of regional policy preferences and goals. Unlike Congress’s controversial HR1 voting reform, moving local elections on-cycle offers a rare opportunity to increase voter turnout and promote localism while also forging bipartisan support. And, as Hartney concludes, citing the American Political Science Review, “utilizing concurrent elections is the single most important change that local governments can undertake to increase turnout.” With parents across the country mobilized on a range of important local issues, particularly those concerning schools, moving elections on-cycle can eventually mitigate conflict by giving parents and local voters a voice in democracy.