Factors Affecting Municipal Voting Patterns

September 17, 2002

In 2001, a strong and diverse field of candidates ran for mayor of Los Angeles, and surveys indicated that the race was too close to call. Yet only about one-third of the city's registered voters cast ballots in the primary nominating election and runoff, raising concerns about declining civic participation and its potential consequences.

Researchers calculate that less than half of all registered California voters living in cities cast ballots in the most recent municipal elections. However, they also point out that overall turnout in city elections could be increased substantially by rescheduling more of them to coincide with state and national contests.

  • The data indicate the average turnout was 48 percent of registered voters for city council elections and 44 percent for mayoral races -- averages that mask dramatic differences in voting rates across California's communities, where turnout ranged from a low of 10 percent to a high of 89 percent.
  • Research indicates that about half of the difference in turnout among California cities can be explained by election timing, because for over 100 years, California cities have scheduled off-cycle or "local-only" elections, most of which occur in the spring.
  • However, local contests that coincided with presidential elections drew 36 percent more turnout than these off-cycle elections.
  • Similarly, local contests that ran concurrently with gubernatorial races and presidential primaries drew 26 and 21 percent more registered voters.

Researchers estimate that if all municipal elections in the state had coincided with a presidential election, 1.7 million more California voters would have voted in their most recent city council contest. This measure would enhance democracy in a diverse state with powerful city governments.

Source: Zoltan Hajnal, Paul Lewis and Hugh Louch, "Municipal Elections in California: Turnout, Timing, and Competition," Research Brief No. 56, March 2002, Public Policy Institute of California.

 

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