Mr. Moran, my high school civics teacher, taught a class my senior year in which every student was eligible for extra credit if they registered to vote. Since I was just 17, I found this profoundly unfair until I discovered that I could pre-register to vote, since I was to be 18 before the next scheduled general election. I remember the pride I felt walking out of the County Clerk’s office that day; I was ready to make an impact! My first election was for City Council. I marched in, prepared to wait in line as long as needed to cast my ballot. As long as needed turned out to be but one minute, as the entire process took less than five–because as it happened, I was one of only two people voting at the moment.
My experience that day, it turns out, was pretty typical for municipal elections. In 2013, Aaron C. Weinschenk and Thomas Holbrook of the London School of Economics and Political Science researched the average voter turnout across 144 US cities from 1996 to 2001. Their study, comprised of 340 mayoral elections, found that “On average, turnout was just 25.8% across the cities included in our study.” The higher the office on the ballot, the higher the turnout for mayoral elections. A congressional race caused a 15 point jump in mayoral voting, while a presidential election added 27 points.
The bump in mayoral turnout during presidential and congressional years is likely due to the average turnout during those years. According to the United States Elections Project, in 2012–the last year we had a presidential election–58.6% of those eligible to vote cast a ballot. In the 2014 congressional midterms, only 35.9% turned out. This number drops even further when the elections take place in a month other than November. For instance, the 2011 city elections in Las Vegas (held in June) saw a turnout of only 18.9%.
This decline in voting during local elections is troubling for many reasons, not least of which is that minorities and other groups typically under-represented on the national level have potential to make a much huge difference in who is elected in local elections. Zoltan L. Hajnal, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego and author of America’s Uneven Democracy, used this example in The Washington Post: “Asian Americans…make up 5% of the total national population…however [they] make up the majority of the population in Hawaii and a third of the population in San Francisco and San Jose. Whether groups like Asian Americans vote could very much affect elections in those places.”
Hajnal found that, at least in cities, minority representation on city councils goes hand-in-hand with voter turnout level. As a result, “limited and uneven participation has helped to restrict the number of minorities in local office, which in turn affects government spending priorities…Latinos, Asian Americans, and African Americans regularly end up on the losing side because their voices are more muted than they could be.”
There are many theories on how to increase turnout, ranging from mandatory voting, to incentives for those who participate, to changing the years in which we hold local elections. These ideas will be debated, some will be surely be implemented, and some merely dismissed. But on a personal level, all you have to do to break this cycle is commit to voting every time. Bring your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers. Vote in every election possible, because your voice does matter– especially at a local level.