Low Voter Turnout: Not an Individual Moral Failure

By Jason A. McDaniel

Autumn is in the air and we are in an odd-numbered year, which makes it likely that a local election is taking place somewhere near you. Unfortunately, it is also likely that fewer than half of registered voters of any given city will be participating in that local election.

Perhaps even more importantly, the racial composition of the electorate will be disproportionately white, even in racially diverse cities. According to my analysis of data for the upcoming mayoral election in San Francisco, 65% of voters in the electorate will be white, in a city where just 42% of the population is white. In a city where 20% of the population is either Black or Latino, my estimates indicate they will make up less than 10% of the voting electorate.

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In addition to be disproportionately white, urban and local electorates are likely to be heavily skewed towards older voters. According to my research, there is about a 30% probability that an individual registered voter under the age of 40 will vote in an election in San Francisco, regardless of individual racial identity. By way of comparison, approximately 65% of registered voters in San Francisco under age 40 voted in the 2012 presidential election.

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The relatively low levels of participation in local elections has received some attention, and is certainly cause for concern. Too often, however, the low level of electoral participation in U.S. cities is framed as a moral failure of citizens who do not care enough to bother to embrace their civic duty. Such moralistic framing tends to obscure the importance of electoral institutions and demographic factors.

What explains the patterns of turnout that we see in places like San Francisco and other cities? Research into the subject points to a combination of factors, some of which are easier to ameliorate than others. In general, low levels of electoral participation urban elections can be explained by the specific set of electoral rules and institutions that are prevalent in big cities, a confluence of demographic changes, such as increased racial diversity and immigration, and the decline of partisan electoral competition in urban elections.

The most important factor, to my mind, is the electoral rules and institutions that have separated local elections from state and national elections. We know that people are motivated to participate in elections when they feel there is an important interest at stake. Holding local elections in different years from other state and federal elections makes it less likely that voters will perceive that there are important interests at stake. Changing the election calendar to coincide with other important elections would dramatically increase participation.

We know that some individual characteristics correlate with higher probability of electoral participation. People who have higher levels of education, people who are older, and people who have been citizens longer are more likely to perceive a compelling interest to vote. They are more likely to develop the habit of voting.

We also know that citizens who identify with racial-ethnic minority groups are more likely to participate in local elections when they have the opportunity to elect a candidate who is representative of their racial-ethnic group.

We know that people are more likely to participate when they are mobilized to do so. That is, when they are asked to participate by a family member, friend, neighbor, or (especially) by a candidate or campaign organization. I suspect that concentrated and sustained efforts to mobilize the Asian-American electorate in San Francisco explains why turnout has increased steadily since 2003 among Asian-American voters.

Voter mobilization requires money, skill, and organization. Unfortunately, the combination of strict campaign finance rules and non-partisan elections makes it very difficult to connect money, skill, and organization to produce strong voter mobilization effects. Research consistently shows that electoral participation increases as campaign spending increases. Also, research shows that the chances of an incumbent winning re-election decline as spending increases. This research implies that we should consider making it easier to raise and spend money in local elections. Public financing of elections, including public matching schemes adopted by cities such as New York and San Francisco, can be part of the solution. But, as long as campaign finance reformers primary focus is on limiting contributions, public financing should not be expected to substantially increase voter turnout in local elections.

Automatic voter registration, recently adopted in California and other states, will improve things in some respects, but, unfortunately, it will not be a panacea. According to research by Michael McDonald, we should not expect substantial increases in voter turnout rates because the increase in registered voters will be concentrated in those portions of the electorate that are least likely to participate.

The low levels of local electoral participation in American cities does not represent a moral failure of voters. Treating declining participation as a moral failing is likely to perpetuate racial and age disparities in the electorate. Moreover, doing so shifts the focus away from the things that government institutions and political campaigns can do to improve electoral participation.

Jason A. McDaniel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at San Francisco State University.

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