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When Fewer Voters Show-Up To The Polls, Special Interest Groups Hold More Sway

A photo of a sign pointing to a voting area.
Renee Bright
There’s a long history of separating “off-cycle” municipal elections from national races. But with traditionally low voter turnout, new research suggests local governments formed during these elections can be more responsive to special interest groups than they are to residents.

Presidential and Congressional elections are a big draw for voters. 2020 saw record-breaking numbers. This year Utah will hold smaller municipal elections throughout the state though, and those “off-cycle elections” don’t often get a ton of turnout.

According to a new study in the American Political Science Review, that could mean special interest groups hold more sway over those governments. Brigham Young University political scientist Adam Dynes was one of the paper’s co-authors, and joined KUER’s Caroline Ballard to talk about his findings.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: Your research shows that when municipal elections are held on off-cycle years, special interest groups can have an outsized influence. What does that end up looking like when it comes to how local government operates?

Adam Dyne: Places that have off-cycle elections, their policies don't reflect the preferences of voters as well. And that's especially the case on issues that are of interest to organized interest groups. So, for example, public employees. So we find then that in conservative places, cities that have off-cycle elections end up spending almost twice as much or more per capita in salary expenditures than cities that are also just as conservative but have on-cycle elections.

And our argument for why that's happening is [it] likely has to do with the fact that turnout is much lower. It allows then interest groups’ people to have a greater impact on who wins the elections, and more impact on those elected officials who might be more worried about the interest groups than the people who show up to vote, or who aren't showing up to vote in this case.

CB: Did you see or study any examples here in Utah?

AD: So cities in Utah are in our sample, but we're looking at all cities across the U.S. with a population above 20,000. The tricky thing, though, with trying to say, 'Well, does this apply to Utah specifically?' is that in Utah, all of [the municipal] elections are off-cycle. So a lot of our ability, statistically, to be able to kind of identify this effect hinges on other states where they have some cities with off-cycle and some cities with on-cycle — like Arizona, Nevada, California [and] Colorado. And so learning from all of these states from across the U.S., it probably applies to Utah as well.

CB: Why do most local governments hold their elections in off-cycle years? What's the potential benefit to that?

AD: Yeah, so a lot of these decisions were made a long time ago. I do know there were efforts, especially in the early 1900s with the progressive movements of that time period, where they were trying to defeat the corrupt party machines that dominated in politics at the national level all the way down to the city level. So one attempt among many things they tried to do to break the power of the machine or defeat them — was to change the timing of elections.

There was also an effort to change local elections to be nonpartisan. Sometimes there was also an attitude of trying to limit the masses from showing up in a local election and feeling that, ‘oh, let's keep it so that it is the elites and the people who are maybe more informed and the stakeholders in the community who are more likely to vote when it's off-cycle.’

CB: So in some ways, it could be intentional that turnout is quite a bit lower on these off-cycle years.

AD: Yes, it could line up with some of the efforts that were made to change the election timing. And of course, I'm saying this was happening —we're talking 100 years ago. Right? Utah [was] also probably many, many decades ago. So regardless of what their intentions were then, the effects are still with us. And yes, as you pointed out, turnout in elections in municipalities when they're held off-cycle is much, much lower. It's not uncommon for 25% of voters to show up, whereas national and state elections are getting 50, 60, 70% of voters turning out.

CB: Why not then move local elections to be held in tandem with larger elections like presidential and congressional elections?

AD: I think one [thing] that makes it a little bit tricky might be the fact that our national and state elections are partisan, but then our local elections are not. Does that create some confusion for voters? But I think you could set up the ballot to accommodate a nonpartisan election. This does speak to debates about when should elections be held. And I think sometimes there's a tendency to take one study and say, ‘Oh, this proves that we need to change all elections to be on-cycle.’ But there's other considerations as well.

But I do think this is an important finding, along with a whole body of research that does find with other types of local elections, like school board elections, that it seems that interest groups get more of what they want when elections are held off-cycle. It is an argument in favor of moving things to on-cycle, but it's just one piece of evidence.

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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