We have reached the end of an odd-numbered year – a year with no major nationwide election. Politicos often refer to these years as “off-years;” but just because it was an off-year does not mean that there were no elections in 2021. Several states had elections for governor and state legislatures, and some cities elected new mayors. Elections held in off-years - specifically municipal elections - tend to yield significantly lower voter turnout than presidential and general elections.
Voter turnout disparity between on- and off-year elections is worrisome, in part, because county and municipal elections tend to have a bigger impact on our everyday lives than national ones. These are the types of elections that decide which streets get repaved, how many police officers are patrolling your community, and when your trash gets collected.
Exhibit A: Tucson, AZ
In Arizona, turnout in presidential and midterm cycles tend to overshadow turnout in off-year cycles. For example, in the off-year of 2019, there were around 260,000 registered voters in the city of Tucson, Arizona, but fewer than 90,000 of them cast a ballot in the election for mayor (as well as a few councilmembers and propositions). Only about one third of registered voters participated in that election, which was won by city councilwoman Regina Romero. This turnout pales in comparison to the prior year’s midterm election when nearly half (47.5%) of Tucson registered voters returned a ballot.
Exhibit B: Atlanta, GA
Tucson is not the only city that sees this kind of turnout in municipal elections. In 2017, Atlanta had a high-profile mayoral election with Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood, both members of the Atlanta City Council, competing for the city’s top job. Despite a surprising amount of outside spending in this race, turnout still hovered below 40%: there are about 250,000 registered voters in the City of Atlanta, but only 93,000 of them participated in this election.
These types of turnout numbers in off-year elections can make them very difficult to forecast and handicap compared to statewide or national elections where turnout tends to be higher. There are several factors that affect voter turnout in these municipal off-year elections; some of the most glaring: voter fatigue, ballot awareness, and campaign spend.
Voter fatigue occurs when a voter grows tired of casting a number of ballots in a relatively short period of time. As an example, between June 2020 and January 2021, Atlanta voters were asked to cast a ballot five times: The June primary, the August primary runoff, the November general election, the January runoff, and the November mayoral election. It’s not hard to imagine at least some voters growing tired of having to cast a ballot every few months to ultimately skip out on what they perceive to be the “smaller” (municipal) elections.
Ballot Awareness & Campaign Spend
Another factor affecting voter turnout is a lack of awareness of the impact local races have on our everyday lives. While the impacts of general elections are more commonly understood, the issues on municipal ballots that directly affect the everyday lives of voters in those communities are given far less public attention. Campaign spend correlates with awareness of elections and ballot issues, meaning that lower campaign spend also means lower issue/campaign awareness. Without the awareness or education on upcoming elections, voters are significantly less likely to turn out. Non-partisan grassroots organization Common Causes perfectly sums up the importance of these elections: “There is not a single aspect of daily life that isn’t affected by your government. The roads you drive on, the air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat, the schools that teach your children, and the parks you visit — are all a function of government.”
The key takeaway: off-year elections don’t see high turnout because voters aren’t as highly aware of municipal ballot issues and candidates – in part due to lower campaign spend in these races – and/or voters feeling that they have to vote too much. Increasing voter turnout in these elections begins with educational campaigns surrounding what is going to be on those ballots in order to boost awareness of the items on municipal ballots that have a direct impact on day-to-day life.