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Turnout

Turnout

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Published by Gerrie Schipske

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Published by: Gerrie Schipske on Jul 05, 2010
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10.1177/1078087403251385
ARTICLE
URBAN AFFAIRS REVIEW/May2003Hajnal,Lewis /VOTERTURNOUT
MUNICIPAL INSTITUTIONS ANDVOTER TURNOUT IN LOCALELECTIONS
ZOLTAN L. HAJNAL
University of California, San Diego
PAUL G. LEWIS
Public Policy Institute of CaliforniaAlthough low voter turnout in national elections has garnered considerable attention and con-cern, much lower turnout in municipal elections has often been largely ignored. Using a surveyof cities in California, this article examines a series of institutional remedies to low turnout inmayoralandcitycouncilelections.Movinglocalelectionstocoincidewiththedatesofnationalelections would have by far the largest impact on voter turnout, but other institutional changesthattendtoraisethestakesoflocalelectionsalsoincreaseturnout.Specifically,lessoutsourcingofcityservices,theuseofdirectdemocracy,andmorecontrolinthehandsofelectedratherthanappointed officials all tend to increase turnout.
 Keywords:
turnout; institutions; concurrent elections; urban politics; voting
ObserversofAmericanpolitics
have repeatedly expressed concern aboutlow voter participation in federal elections (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady1995;Lijphart1997;BennettandResnick1990).Thefactthatalmosthalfof all eligible voters do not vote in presidential elections has been cited repeat-edly as evidence of an ongoing crisis in American democracy. Decliningvoter participation over time in these national elections has also been high-lighted by a host of scholars who have raised questions about the health of American politics (Rosenstone and Hansen 1993; Teixeira 1992).Yet for all of the attention garnered by national elections, turnout in theseelections is comparatively high. Nowhere is the turnout problem worse thanat the local level. Although few studies have looked comprehensively atmunicipal-levelturnoutinrecentdecades,theexistingevidencesuggeststhat
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URBAN AFFAIRS REVIEW, Vol. 38, No. 5, May 2003 645-668DOI: 10.1177/1078087403251385© 2003 Sage Publications
 
turnoutincityelectionsmayaveragehalfthatofnationalelections,withturn-outinsomecitiesregularlyfallingbelowone-quarterofthevoting-agepopu-lation (Alford and Lee 1968; Morlan 1984; Bridges 1997). Moreover, trendsovertimesuggestthatvoterturnoutinlocalelectionsisdecliningjustasrap-idly as it is in national elections (Karnig and Walter 1983, 1993). In short, atthe local level where policies are most likely to be implemented and where amajorityofthenationscivicleadersarebeingelected,importantpublicpol-icy decisions are being made without the input of most of the affected resi-dents.Despitetherelativelyhighlevelsofnonparticipationatthelocallevel,few studies have even begun to suggest ways in which the problem might bealleviated.The exceedingly low participation in local elections raises a number of concerns.Oneofthemostseriousisthatthevoiceofthepeopleinmunicipalelections is likely to be severely distorted. Even at the national level whereturnoutisrelativelyhigh,researchindicatesthatthereisaclearbiastopartici-pation.Disadvantagedsegmentsofthepopulation—racialandethnicminor-ities,thepoor,thosewithalimitededucation—tendtovotesignificantlylessregularly than others in national contests (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady1995; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993). As turnout falls, this bias is likely tobecome more severe (Wattenberg 1998). At the local level, then,nonparticipation may play a more critical role in policy making. In an arenainwhichtheactionsoflocalgovernmentcanaffectcitizensinprofoundways(forexample,inpublicsafety,infrastructure,andland-usedecisions),thereisa very real possibility that elected officials and the policies they enact willtendtoserveonlyasmallsegmentofthepopulation(HajnalandHills2002).Another concern with nonparticipation at the local level is that citizenslose out on a relatively easy opportunity to learn about and become engagedin democracy. Given the proximity of local governments and their relativelysmallsize,itisinmanywayseasierforcitizenstoacquirecrucialdemocraticskillsandbecomefamiliarwiththepublicrealmatthelocallevel.Localpoli-tics could and should be the training ground of a democratic citizenry—therealm through which they begin to become engaged and empowered in thelarger democratic process and the place where they begin to gain a trust ingovernmentandabeliefintheirownpoliticalefficacy(Oliver2001).Thefactthat so few citizens participate in local elections is likely to be at least a con-tributing factor to the decreasing levels of trust in government, political effi-cacy, and sense of civic duty that have alarmed so many observers of Ameri-can politics (Bennett and Resnick 1990; Lipset and Schneider 1983).Itis,therefore,criticalthatweunderstandmoreaboutwhypeoplechoosenottoparticipateinlocalelectionsandwhatstepsmightbetakentostemthetide and encourage broader participation. Thus, the goal of this article is to
646 URBAN AFFAIRS REVIEW / May 2003
 
provideamoresystematicaccountofthefactorsthatinfluenceturnoutlevelsin local elections, looking in particular for turnout-dampening factors thatmight be subject to change through policy. Therefore, in contrast to the vastmajority of research on voting behavior, which has focused on individualdemographiccharacteristics(suchasrace,education,andage)orthelevelof competition in a particular election (factors such as the margin of victory,campaign mobilization, and campaign spending), we focus our attention onlocal electoral and governing institutions.
ARE INSTITUTIONAL ARRANGEMENTSLINKED TO VOTER PARTICIPATION?
We focus on local institutions for two reasons. First, from a practicalstandpoint, electoral institutions can be altered. Although examining demo-graphic characteristics and the level of competition may help us to under-standwhypeoplevote,studiesthatfocusonthesetwofactorsgenerallyofferlittleadvicetothoseinterestedinaddressingtheproblemoflowturnout.Forexample,knowingthatincomeincreasesthepropensitytovoteisnotable,butthatknowledgeleadstofewrealpolicysolutionstononparticipation.Bycon-trast, municipalities generally have the ability to alter their own institutionalstructure and can in many cases reform the way they conduct elections bypassing an ordinance or altering a city charter. Moreover, changes in theseinstitutions and electoral laws are not unprecedented, as municipalities haveengaged in numerous rounds of structural reform (Bridges 1997; Welch andBledsoe1988).Thus,iflocalinstitutionscanbeshowntoaffectturnout,theyoffer a viable policy lever to increase participation in local elections.Asecondandequallyimportantreasontofocusonelectoralinstitutionsistheongoingperceptionthattheyareaprimary—ifnottheprimary—determi-nant of voter participation at the local level.
1
For decades, scholars of urbanpolitics have suggested that a particular set of local institutions associatedwith the urban reform movement has served to dramatically reduce voterturnout.Twoinstitutionsinparticular—thecitymanagerformofgovernmentand nonpartisan elections—have been viewed as critical determinants of local turnout. In the first case, scholars have argued that by weakening thepowers of the mayor and shifting more power into the hands of an unelectedcitymanager,thisstructuralchangemayhavereducedthedirectinfluenceof votersanddecreasedtheincentiveforlocalresidentstovote(AlfordandLee1968; Karnig and Walter 1983; Bridges 1997). In the case of nonpartisanelections, the theory is that mobilization efforts on the behalf of parties willdecline and turnout will fall as a result (Karnig and Walter 1983; Schaffner,
Hajnal, Lewis / VOTER TURNOUT 647

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