In the ongoing fight between Democrats and Republicans over election procedures like voter ID and early voting, the Democrats are supposedly the champions of higher turnout and reducing barriers to participation. But when it comes to scheduling off-cycle elections1 like those taking place today, the Democratic Party is the champion of voter suppression.
Indeed, few people will vote today. Many elections are taking place, but almost all are for local offices. School boards, for example, are up for election in Houston; Fairfax County, Virginia; Charlotte, North Carolina and in hundreds of other communities that oversee the education of millions of schoolchildren. But only a small number of highly engaged voters will participate in the elections for these offices.
Scheduling local elections at odd times appears to be a deliberate strategy aimed at keeping turnout low, which gives more influence to groups like teachers unions that have a direct stake in the election’s outcome. But before getting into the details of off-cycle elections, consider the parties’ basic positions on issues of voter participation. As election law expert Rick Hasen has noted, there is a philosophical divide between the parties. Supposedly, for Republicans, small barriers to participation can help the functioning of a democracy. For instance, in recent years, Republicans have been pushing a requirement that voters present identification when they show up to cast a ballot. They argue that voter ID laws can prevent fraud and foster confidence in the electoral system. But they also argue that if an ID requirement deters people who aren’t particularly well-informed or invested in the political process, this might be a net benefit for the electoral system.
The Democratic philosophy is different. For Democrats, universal participation is a value: All voices ought to be represented in the electoral sphere, so the government should not put up any unnecessary barriers to participation.
Debates over issues like voter ID are politically explosive because each side suspects the other of having a strategic motive, not a philosophical one, for its position. Maybe Republicans want lower turnout not because it yields an informed electorate, but because it favors their side. Maybe Democrats promote higher turnout not because of an ideological commitment to civic engagement, but because higher turnout helps elect Democrats (though there is substantial disagreement on whether that is true).
Nowhere are the strategic motivations — and the hypocritical rhetoric — of both parties more apparent than in the timing of elections.
The election calendar in the United States is an insane mess. Exhibit A is New Jersey. New Jersey holds federal elections with the rest of the country on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of even-numbered years. But elections for state office in New Jersey are held in November of odd-numbered years. School district elections are held on the third Tuesday in April or else in November. And fire district commissioner elections are held on the third Saturday in February.
It isn’t just New Jersey. Most states — 44 out of 50 — hold some state and local elections off the federal cycle.
Political scientist Sarah Anzia, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, gives a compelling explanation in an outstanding book published last year. The first point that Anzia makes is that the off-cycle election calendar is not a response to voter preferences; voters do not like taking multiple trips to the voting booth. Anzia asked a nationally representative sample of Americans if they prefer elections held at different times for different offices “because it allows voters to focus on a shorter list of candidates and issues during each election” or all at the same time “because combining the elections boosts voter turnout for local elections.” Voters of all political stripes prefer consolidated elections, and by wide margins. But that’s especially true for people who identify as Democrats, who prefer consolidated elections 73 percent to 27 percent.
Consolidation is popular, and during the decade-long period between 2001 and 2011 that Anzia studied, state legislatures across the country considered over 200 bills aimed at consolidating elections. About half, 102 bills, were focused specifically on moving school board election dates so that they would coincide with other elections. Only 25 became law.
The consolidation bills, which were generally sponsored by Republicans, typically failed because of Democratic opposition, according to Anzia. By her account, Democrats opposed the bills at the urging of Democratic-aligned interest groups, namely teachers unions and municipal employee organizations.
Consider a 2011 bill in Michigan to move school board elections to November of even-numbered years. The Michigan Education Association, a teachers union, testified against the bill, as did associations of school boards and administrators. The bill ended up passing on nearly a party-line vote, with almost all Democratic legislators opposed and almost all Republican legislators in favor.
Looking at the 102 bills aimed at consolidating school board elections with other elections between 2001 and 2011, Anzia found that 72 were sponsored either exclusively or predominantly by Republicans, compared with 23 that were sponsored exclusively or predominantly by Democrats. The bills sponsored by Democrats were also generally much weaker than the Republican bills. For example, the Democratic bills typically permitted municipalities to hold on-cycle elections while the Republican bills required them to do so.
Moreover, for the subset of bills that went to a vote, Republicans were far more likely to vote “yes” than Democrats. For all the bills that went to the floor, Anzia estimates that Republicans voted for consolidation 60 percent of the time and Democrats 40 percent. The table below, built from data provided by Anzia, shows the party polarization that characterized most votes on election consolidation.
|PROPORTION VOTING ‘YES’ ON MAKING SCHOOL ELECTIONS CONCURRENT WITH OTHER ELECTIONS|
But some of those bills dealt with multiple election reforms at a time (some of which Democrats favor), and others were “weak” consolidation bills. Focusing on the stronger bills, the support was even more lopsidedly Republican, as the next table shows.
|PROPORTION VOTING ‘YES’ ON STRONGER ELECTION CONSOLIDATION BILLS|
Why do Democrats and Democratic-aligned groups prefer off-cycle elections? When school boards and other municipal offices are up for election at odd times, few run-of-the-mill voters show up at the polls, but voters with a particular interest in these elections — like city workers themselves — show up in full force. The low-turnout election allows their policy goals to dominate.
Anzia shows that off-cycle elections lead to higher salaries and better health and retirement benefits for teachers and public employees. Anzia studies these effects in many different ways. The simplest way is by looking at eight states that allow local governments to set their own election dates. She compares school districts that hold school board elections on-cycle and off-cycle within the same state. Controlling for factors that might make districts different from one another — like their population size, income, racial composition, partisan leanings and how urban or rural they are — Anzia found that the maximum base teacher salary is over 4 percent higher in districts with off-cycle elections.
Higher salaries and better benefits for municipal employees can be a good outcome. What is interesting is that this outcome is the result of a deliberate move to hold municipal elections at times when few voters are participating.
Proponents of the off-cycle strategy argue that local issues get drowned out when local elections are held concurrent with presidential or congressional elections. People who show up to vote in those big elections may not be equipped to weigh in on the local issues. Anzia quotes a Texas school official who defends off-cycle elections because they bring out “an educated voter … people who really care about the issues and who are passionate about their district.” In off-cycle elections, proponents claim, the electorate is a concentrated set of voters who are engaged in the local issues, which yields better results for the community.
For readers who are sympathetic to the perspective of the off-cycle election proponents (typically Democrats), it is worth noting that these are very much the same arguments that Republicans might make in favor of voting restrictions that make voting a little bit harder for the average American. Just like voter ID or voter-registration requirements, off-cycle elections impose a cost on political participation. The cost is evidently high, since very few people participate in local elections when they are held in odd-numbered years. Maybe the cost leads to a more enlightened electorate. Or maybe it is Democratic-sponsored voter suppression.
Earlier this year, Hillary Clinton made a speech about voting rights in which she said, “Republicans are systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting. What part of democracy are they afraid of?” For Democrats like Clinton who are apparently aghast at Republican efforts at voter suppression, today is a good day to take a look in the mirror.
Check out our live coverage of the GOP debate.