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.
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.
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.