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How

Institutional Design Affects Turnout in


Local Elections
Considerations for Amherst Charter Commission

Paul Musgrave
Assistant Professor of Political Science
University of Massachusetts-Amherst*
musgrave@umass.edu

*Does not reflect the opinions or positions of the University of Massachusetts or any other member of the faculty,
administration, or student body of UMASS.

Abstract
Elections play a central role in democracy. Voters decisions to participate in
electionsturnoutcan be affected by a variety of factors. Although the most
important elements in determining whether citizens vote are individual and household
attributes (for instance, wealth, education, and a sense of civic obligation), the
characteristics of municipal institutions also play a substantial role in affecting turnout.
Among the most important factors are election timing and the design of government
institutions. Those institutional characteristics are extremely hard to change once a
form of government is set. The decisions of a charter commission therefore may affect
voter turnout for decades, if not generations. Because variations in turnout also affects
the types of policy elected officials enact, being explicit about the kinds of tradeoffs
that different institutional design choices make matters greatly. This memorandum
reviews findings in the political science literature relevant to the question of how
mayor-council or council-manager systems affect voter turnout.
Institutional Design and Turnout in Local Elections 2

Introduction
Citizens in a democracy are asked to participate in their government in many ways: writing to elected
officials, showing up to public forums, protesting injustices, serving on boards and commissions,
and running for office. The fundamentaland most frequentelement of citizen participation is
voting in elections.
Turnout matters for three reasons:
1. In a democracy, citizens should value turnout for its own sake. People have organized,
protested, and even died for the right to vote. A system in which few vote may be a system
in which few value democracy relative to other forms of government. Encouraging
participation in democracy at all levels seems likely to encourage healthier habits of
citizenship.
2. Turnout influences the decisions governments reach. Elected officials rationally feel
that holding onto their jobs requires them to pay more attention to the citizens who actually
vote, and therefore can choose to retain or dismiss officials, than to citizens who refrain
from voting. Politicians who face low turnout in elections, as in many municipal elections,
will therefore face incentives to cater only to a narrow slice of the population they represent.
The wider the net is cast, the more they will have incentives to provide policy that produces
benefits for a wider audience.
3. The consequences of low and differential turnout reinforce existing harms and biases
in society. In general, the most frequent voters tend to be richer, whiter, better educated,
more socially connected to government officials, more directly interested in government
policy, and more rooted than non-voters. To the extent that such voters might weigh the
general interest of all people who live under the jurisdiction of a given government, there is
little to be worried about. However, ample evidence confirms that the decisions such a
biased sample of the potential electorate will reach do not reflect better or wiser decisions.
Instead, empirically, the decisions made by a small share of the electorate tend to
disproportionately reward organized interest groups with high benefits and low costs to
organizing. Consequently, lower turnout by disadvantaged minoritiesincluding racial and
ethnic groups as well as economically disadvantaged classestends to generate policies that
fail to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable in society and are driven instead by the
interests of the most comfortable.
Despite the centrality of voting to the legitimacy of democratic institutions and the
responsiveness of governments to the populace, turnout among citizens varies tremendously. How
can governments seek to increase turnout? Although many of the most important determinants of
turnout are beyond the control of policymakers, there are factors that policymakers can influence:
Timing and frequency of elections. The most important single variable in turnout for
local elections is the timing of elections. Elections held on-cycle (coincident with
presidential or gubernatorial elections) attract far more turnout than elections held off-
cycle (in odd years or in months other than November). The size of this effect is on the
order of 30 percentage pointsall else constant, moving a local election from an off-cycle to an
on-cycle election might take turnout from 15 to 45 percent of eligible voters. (Presidential
years have higher turnout than midterm elections, which are higher than state elections.)
Reducing the number of elections (that is, going from annual to biennial or even quadrennial
contests) and moving elections to coincide with higher-visibility contests will increase
turnout substantially.
Institutional Design and Turnout in Local Elections 3

Form of government. Controlling for other factors, having an elected (strong) mayor
increases voters participation in local government by several percentage points relative to
having a council-manager government. Single-member-district city councils tend to
encourage more voter participation, and participation by different voters, than at-large
districts. In general, single-member-districts seem associated with a greater frequency of
election of minorities relative to at-large districts. Elections with local referenda on the ballot
see more participation than elections without such participation. Consequently, allowing
referenda and requiring them to take place on the same day as local elections may allow
more participation.
Competitiveness. The more competitive elections are, the likelier turnout is to be higher.
Designing a structure of government that encourages competition among candidates (for
instance, one with a manageable number of districts that encourages visibility of candidates)
will likely drive up participation.

Below, I review some relevant articles on each topic.

Variation in Turnout: What the Political Science Says


Voting is arguably the central act in democracy. So if voting is important, why do people not vote?
Political scientists have long studied this question. Choosing to turn out to vote (or not) is not a
reflection of a moral failing but instead reflects the mixture of benefits people receive from voting
and the costs of voting.1 Even someone who is very interested in being a good citizen may face high
costs to taking part (for instance, because of work schedules or the difficulty of keeping track of
candidates). Although people differ in their propensity to turn out to vote, therefore, variations in
other factors, both individual and structural, can influence overall turnout in predictable ways.
Factors that increase the cost of voting tend to decrease turnout. Most obviously, laws that
make it harder to register to vote will decrease voter participation. At the extreme, even bad weather
can discourage voting by driving up the costs of getting to the polls.2 Other factors that make voting
easier or give people more of a perceived stake in elections can increase turnout. Education can
increase voting participation, probably by helping to make it easier to understand politics but also by
cementing an image of oneself as rooted in a community. Those with higher incomes tend to vote
more frequently, as do those who are older (at least until very late in life; those over 75 experience
sharp declines in turnout).3 Community factors also seem to matter, as people in rural areas vote
more than people in cities. And elections themselves can influence turnout. Living in a
battleground state during a presidential election leads to higher turnout, for instance.4 Campaigns

1 Timpone, Richard J. "Structure, behavior, and voter turnout in the United States." American Political Science
Review 92, no. 01 (1998): 145-158.
2 Brad T Gomez, Thomas G Hansford and George A Krause, "The Republicans Should Pray for Rain:

Weather, Turnout, and Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections", Journal of Politics 69, no. 3 (2007).
3 Joshua Harder and Jon A Krosnick, "Why Do People Vote? A Psychological Analysis of the Causes of

Voter Turnout", Journal of Social Issues 64, no. 3 (2008).


4 Thomas M Holbrook and Scott D McClurg, "The Mobilization of Core Supporters: Campaigns, Turnout,

and Electoral Composition in United States Presidential Elections", American Journal of Political Science 49, no. 4
(2005).
Institutional Design and Turnout in Local Elections 4

and activists have been shown to boost turnout substantially by placing phone calls, mailing
postcards, andmost importantengaging in direct voter contact.5
Beyond the characteristics of individuals and voters, the type of electionwhether it is
national, state, or localmatters a great deal. In general, the higher the office being chosen, the
more people will turn out. Between about half and three-fifths of eligible Americans tend to vote in
national elections for president and Congress, while only about two-fifths of eligible Americans tend
to vote in midterm elections for Congress alone.6 Turnout for state and local elections, however, can
be much lower: In the U.S., Almost No One Votes in Local Elections, says the headline for an
article in The Atlantics CityLab blog.7 For instance, in Dallas, Texas, only 6.1 percent of eligible
voters participated in the May 2016 mayoral election. More generally, turnout regularly falls below a
quarter of the eligible population in city elections.8

Turnout Matters For Local Government


Do changes in voter turnout matter for local government? That is, would the same city with
different rates of voter turnout adopt different policies and elect different people to office? The
answer is unequivocally yes. When voter turnout is lower, the population of voters tends to be
disproportionately well-educated, richer, more rooted in a community (as measured by years in a
town), and interested in a policys outcomes.
One argument against higher turnout is that only people who take a strong interest in local
government deserve to vote. To those who find that argument appealing, these outcomes may all
sound like desirable qualities. But rephrasing those observations in another way suggests how those
outcomes might be undesirable. Adopting policies that make it harder to vote willpredictably and
almost inevitablymake it harder for those who are least advantaged in society to participate in
their own government. The results of low turnout local elections prove to be what we would expect
given this logic. Hajnal and Trounstine find that lower turnout leads to substantial reductions in the
representation of Latinos and Asian Americans on city councils and in the mayors office, while
for African Americansoff-cycle local elections are more important barriers to representation.9
In other words, empirically policies that discourage voting do so by discouraging more
vulnerable members of the citizenry from casting their ballots. To the extent that people care about
using local government as a way to protect the interests of the vulnerable and not to extend the

5 Alan S Gerber, Donald P Green and Christopher W Larimer, "Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence
From a Large-scale Field Experiment", American Political Science Review 102, no. 01 (2008). Donald P Green and
Alan S Gerber, Get Out the Vote : How to Increase Voter Turnout (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press,
2015). Alan S Gerber and Donald P Green, "The Effects of Canvassing, Telephone Calls, and Direct Mail on
Voter Turnout: A Field Experiment", American Political Science Review 94, no. 03 (2000). David W Nickerson,
"Is Voting Contagious? Evidence From Two Field Experiments", American Political Science Review 102, no. 01
(2008).
6 McDonald, Michael P. 2017. Voter Turnout. United States Elections Project 14 May 2017.

http://www.electproject.org/home/voter-turnout/voter-turnout-data
7 Capps, Kriston. 2016. In the U.S., Almost No One Votes in Local Elections. City Lab. 1 Nov.

http://www.citylab.com/politics/2016/11/in-the-us-almost-no-one-votes-in-local-elections/505766/ Last
Accessed: 14 May 2017.
8 Jessica Trounstine, "Representation and Accountability in Cities", Annual Review of Political Science 13 (2010).
9 Zoltan Hajnal and Jessica Trounstine, "Where Turnout Matters: The Consequences of Uneven Turnout in

City Politics", Journal of Politics 67, no. 2 (2005).


Institutional Design and Turnout in Local Elections 5

privileges of the comfortable, taking action to encourage turnout matters greatly. Thinking about
turnout is therefore asking important question about whether the goal of government is to restrict
turnout, and thereby to ensure that government is most responsive to a narrow, privileged subset of
the citizens, or whether the goal is to ensure that government takes into account a broader set of
concerns held by people who may have more limited resources with which to engage in politics.

Timing and Frequency of Elections


One factor that greatly influences turnout is when elections are held. Turnout in local elections
varies tremendously with the timing (the calendar date of elections) and the frequency (the time
between elections). Since presidential elections tend to be the most salient events in the American
electoral calendar, they also draw the highest turnout rates in most areas. Hajnal and Lewis estimate
that, controlling for a wide variety of other characteristics, local turnout in a presidential election is
36 percentage points higher than in an off-cycle (non-general election, odd-year election), a
finding consistent with other studies.10 Holding elections on the same day as a congressional
midterm election or presidential primary generated turnout about 25 percentage points higher than
an off-cycle election.
Do these effects matter for how governance proceeds? The answer is probably yes. The
more a given social or economic interest group has at stake in an election, the more likely their
members are to turn out and to organize their allies to turn out. However, people who are less
directly involved in an elections stakes are more likely to stay home and less likely to be mobilized.11
The more frequent and the more oddly-timed elections are, the harder it is for people to participate
in local governments. As Berry and Gersen write, When the costs of participation rise, elections
that might otherwise have been dominated by majoritarian interests may turn into elections
dominated by special interests, resulting in concrete differences in public policy.12
Beyond the findings established above about turnout and diversity in government, Anzia
finds that lower participation in local races was associated with higher influence by organized groups
and that moving elections on-cycle reduced the influence of special interests in local elections.13
Holding more frequent and less conveniently timed elections can thus actively discriminate against
those who are not rich, who do not own a house, who may have recently moved to a community,
who may be part of an ethnic or racial minority, and so on, while such inconveniently timed
elections can also reward groups who are most organized regardless of whether they seek the public
good or (more often) their private interest.14

10 Zoltan L Hajnal and Paul G Lewis, "Municipal Institutions and Voter Turnout in Local Elections", Urban
Affairs Review 38, no. 5 (2003). Christopher R Berry and Jacob E Gersen, "The Timing of Elections", The
University of Chicago Law Review 77, no. 1 (2010): 37-64. Curtis Wood, "Voter Turnout in City Elections", Urban
Affairs Review 38, no. 2 (2002).
11 J Eric Oliver and Shang E Ha, "Vote Choice in Suburban Elections", American Political Science Review 101,

no. 3 (2007).
12 Berry and Gersen, "The Timing of Elections", 39.
13 Sarah F Anzia, "The Election Timing Effect: Evidence From a Policy Intervention in Texas", Quarterly

Journal of Political Science 7, no. 3 (2012).


14 Albert Saiz, "The Median Voter Didn't Show Up: Costly Meetings and Insider Rents", Regional Science and

Urban Economics 41, no. 5 (2011).


Institutional Design and Turnout in Local Elections 6

The Form Of Local Government Affects Voter Turnout and City Council Composition
Beyond electoral timing, the form of local government greatly affects turnout. All else being equal, a
city that adopts a council-manager form of government will have a voter turnout rate that is lower
than a city with a mayor-council form.15 Trounstine summarizes the literature as suggesting the
magnitude of this effect is about ten percentage points. That is, a city with a mayor-council system
and 25 percent turnout in elections that switches to a council-manager system would then have only
about 15 percent turnout subsequently. Council-manager systems do not appear to have any
compensating benefits in terms of other ways of eliciting voter participationfor instance, through
public forums.16
The structure of city councils also influences who turns out and who wins elections in terms
of the diversity of the electorate and the city council. Although the most important determinant of
minority representation on city councils are the diversity of a city and the spatial concentration of
minority group members, institutional form also matters. Scholars have found that single-member
districts tend to be associated with higher rates of representation for minority groups, as measured
by the number of minority-group members who run for and win spots on city councils.17 Elections
for single-member-district council seats (that is, when a single member is chosen from a given ward
or precinct) are associated with a substantial (approximately 17 percentage point) increase in the
likelihood of having African-American men on a council compared to at-large districts.
The effect of single-member-district versus at-large seats on women candidates ability to
win is harder to disentangle. Recent work suggests that when voters know little about each candidate
(as is common in local elections), they are more apt to fall back on implicit biases especially when
asked to make choices among large fields of candidates. Thus, when voters have to pick their three
top choices out of a field of six or more (as is common in local elections for at-large seats), they are
more likely to vote according to their prejudices (and thus less likely to vote for women or racial/ethnic
minorities). However, when voters choose between only two choices, they are more likely to be able
to suppress their implicit bias and vote for a woman or a member of a racial/ethnic minority
group.18
Finally, Hajnal and Lewis find that cities with a local referendum on the ballot tended to
draw about 4 percent more voters to the pollsan effect size about half as much as the difference
between mayor-council and council-manager forms of government.19 Allowing for local referenda to
be held at the same time as local elections for mayors and councilmembers (or just councilmembers,
in a council-manager system) may drive up turnout.

15 Trounstine, "Representation and Accountability in Cities". Wood, "Voter Turnout in City Elections". Jered
B Carr, "What Have We Learned About the Performance of Council-Manager Government? A Review and
Synthesis of the Research", Public Administration Review 75, no. 5 (2015). Oliver and Ha, "Vote Choice in
Suburban Elections".
16 Carr, "What Have We Learned About the Performance of Council-Manager Government? A Review and

Synthesis of the Research", 679.


17 Trounstine, "Representation and Accountability in Cities". Hajnal and Trounstine, "Where Turnout

Matters: The Consequences of Uneven Turnout in City Politics".


18 Melody Crowder-Meyer and others, Complex Interactions: Candidate Race, Sex, Electoral Institutions, and Vote Choice

(Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, April 2015).


19 Hajnal and Lewis, "Municipal Institutions and Voter Turnout in Local Elections".
Institutional Design and Turnout in Local Elections 7

Competitiveness Increases Turnout


One major factor that a charter commission can influence in seeking to improve turnout is the
competitiveness of local elections. Competition for office is one of the most important factors
linking voters and officials (and candidates). At the extreme, when officials do not face competitive
elections, they have little incentive to inform voters of what they are doing and little reason to fear
that anyone else will inform the voters as well. In the absence of competition for office, then, city
officials can enact policies against the best interest of the public.
The worst-case scenario happened in Bell, California, a small city with a council-manager
system and turnout of as low as percent in its (off-cycle) elections. This low-turnout, low-
competitive town paid its city manager nearly $800,000 annually and part-time city councilors
received nearly $100,000 in annual salaries, among numerous other frauds.20 Although it is unlikely
that Amherst residents would ever allow such a scenario to come to pass, it is worth taking seriously
the fact that competition among office-seekers does provide strong incentives for candidates to
provide information that incumbents might want to keep hidden.
Measures that would increase the competitiveness of local racessuch as creating larger
districts for officesmight help to improve the quality of governance by improving the incentives
for challengers to bring information that exposes such abuses to light and by discouraging
officeholders from behaving in that manner in the first place.21 A mayoral election is one sort of
larger-districted election, but combining precincts into wards for elections might also do the trick.
At-large elections would also tend to be more competitive, althoughas the attentive reader will
note!at-large elections would also raise other problems.
But the biggest takeaway is that elections for mayor-council or council-manager offices will
be much more competitive than elections for Town Meeting. This will, on the one hand, tend to
increase the level of overt competition among people interested in Amhersts government in a way
that some may find off-putting. But, on the other hand, such competition is also the sign of a
healthy and engaged political systemone that encourages people to commit to running for office
and to finding ways to frame issues that allow voters to make more competent decisions. Candidates
in competitive elections will also be likelier to contact voters to urge them to vote, a key non-
institutional factor in driving up turnout.

Conclusion
Institutional design is hard. Arrangements that provide the maximum of some set of desired
qualities (for instance, increasing the professionalism of municipal management by centralizing
executive functions in an appointed manager) may unintentionally lead to undesired outcomes on
other scores (for instance, by reducing turnout in local elections and leading to a democratic deficit).
Striking a balance on many such dimensions is difficult and requires not just empirical evidence but
also deep introspection and deliberation about what values matter most to a community. This
memorandum provides no new evidence about turnout and makes no recommendations about how
this information should influence the charter commissions decisions. Instead, I write simply to

20 Jennifer G. Rodgers and Jacob Watkins, Rebuilding Bell, California: Review and Recommendations for Continued
Improvement of Accountability, Oversight and Transparency (Chapman University Center for Public Integrity Report).
21 John Gerring and others, "Demography and Democracy: A Global, District-level Analysis of Electoral

Contestation", American Political Science Review 109, no. 3 (2015).


Institutional Design and Turnout in Local Elections 8

encourage members of the commission to take note of these findings in the hopes that they will help
sharpen debates and contribute to a better understanding of the tradeoffs to be made.
The major takeaway point is that the form of a city or town government will not entirely
influence turnout in local elections. However, there are features of local government that can raise
or lower turnout, all else being equal. In general:
On-cycle (even-year, November) elections will have higher turnout than off-cycle
electionssubstantially so.
Mayor-council systems will have higher turnout than council-manager systems.
More competitive, higher-stakes elections (e.g., elections with referenda on the ballot or in
which city governments provide more services) will have higher turnout than less
competitive, lower-stakes election.
The institutional form of city government can also affect the types of candidates who win and how
government works:
Higher turnout is likelier to increase the diversity of the electorate and the city government.
Higher turnout is likely to make government more responsive to the needs of ethnic and
racial minorities.
Single-member-districts are likeliest to increase the representation of racial and ethnic
minorities relative to at-large districts.
Elections for offices with many candidates (that is, pick-three-of-six) may be likelier to
depress the representation of women and minorities relative to elections with only two
candidates.
There is no magic formula for designing the perfect government. Designing a government,
like politics itself, is about making hard tradeoffs between valuable goals. But clarifying ones beliefs
about which goals matter, and how much relative to other goals, can at least lead discussions to
center on what kinds of tradeoffs should be madeand knowing the approximate magnitude of
those effects can lead to more predictable tradeoffs.
As the Commission members know well, a successful charter revision may be a once-in-a-
generationor even once-in-a-centuryopportunity to influence the dynamics of Amherst politics.
Institutions last a long time when they are put in place, and changing them is hard. Thinking now in
an evidence-based manner about how best to influence turnout could affect the community and its
governance for decadesfor generations yet unborn.

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Institutional Design and Turnout in Local Elections 10

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