Election Consolidation - A Silver Bullet for Voter Turnout?
As it stands, voter participation in municipal elections is at an all-time low – and could get worse. It’s possible that, with the death of much local journalism, fewer Americans are paying attention to – or made aware of – issues happening in their own backyard. But those issues are some of the most impactful to everyday lives.
Consider who runs your kids’ school. Who oversees the sheriff’s department. Who manages water treatment in your community. These things matter. And any problems – and potential solutions – only get addressed through local elections.
Hold All Levels of Elections on the Same Day
One administrative change that could significantly affect election turnout at all levels, and that already has bipartisan support, is election consolidation. It’s the opposite of what is so often done now: holding separate elections for local offices, which are often on off-years and result in poor turnout.
With election consolidation, administrators hold all local elections including municipal, special, and school district together with state, and national elections on the same day or during the same early voting period. With this practice, a voter doesn’t show up in, say, January to vote for his local election board of supervisors and then again in November to vote for a president or senator. Instead, a voter casts just one ballot for all kinds of elections in even years (2024, 2026, etc.).
Evidence is mounting that not only does election consolidation improve turnout in local elections – either by 8 to 18 percentage points, depending on the election, midterm or presidential, or even up to 50 percentage points – but it also boosts national turnout in state and federal elections.
Election consolidation isn’t a new idea. Oregon, for example, has been holding county, state, and national elections on the same day for the past couple of decades. And, while Oregon provides voters with options facilitating greater participation, e.g. all-mail voting and automatic voter registration, its county elections boast much higher turnout – by upwards of 20 to 30 percentage points – than that of nearby Washington state, with comparable reforms but no consolidation.
Oregon isn’t the only state already consolidating elections. According to one estimate, “18 states mandate off-cycle municipal elections and 22 states allow city officials to choose off-cycle election dates.”
More recently, in California, some localities implemented the practice ahead of a new requirement that, as of 2022, all municipal elections in most cities be consolidated with midterm and general elections. Arizona and Nevada have passed comparable laws. Since the law is new, data is still scarce. But already, the numbers in Los Angeles are increasing: By 2022, turnout for that city’s mayoral election had nearly doubled.
One researcher found a five percent increase in turnout between 2014 and 2018 for those cities in California consolidating elections. Another found that, in 54 cities within that state, turnout among registered voters increased by roughly 50% after consolidation. Some caveats apply, regarding other factors contributing to voter enthusiasm, but the trend is promising. For such a short period of time since implementation, these are significant increases.
Election Consolidation is a Simple Answer to a Long-Term Problem
Think about it: when you merge three events in the same location, you generally get higher overall attendance. Whether a voter shows up on Election Day because she was persuaded by a local, state, or federal candidate, or a specific issue, she’ll probably vote, if not the whole ticket, then at least for more than just the candidate pulling her there. And the more often she does this, the likelier she is to educate herself on all candidates and issues before showing up. Candidates, too, will do a better job of educating voters at these new intervals. And so will the media.
Slow to Change
So why haven’t we consolidated yet? One counterpoint is that local candidates and races receive less attention than the federal and state candidates on a longer, more crowded ticket. In this same vein, some administrators and legislators say merging elections will result in voter confusion and exhaustion. They insist that no one wants to vote a ballot that is pages long and could cause fatigued voters to randomly vote without knowing anything about the candidates and thereby skew results.
Special-interest groups, too, like teachers’ unions, prefer off-cycle elections because, with a smaller electorate, they can win over more voters through persuasive campaigns. Indeed, “as many as two-thirds of the nation’s 90,000 school-board members are chosen in elections where an estimated 10%–15% of citizens vote.”
Voter Opinion on Election Consolidation
Despite these arguments, for many concerned with the state of our democracy – and our consistently underwhelming turnout – those reasons don’t suffice, particularly when consolidation could increase turnout in all elections, local, state, and national.
It’s worth noting that voters, in overwhelming numbers, have passed ballot initiatives implementing the practice in handfuls of states. When faced with the choice, voters want fewer elections with more races included on the same ballot. Given Americans’ increasingly hectic lifestyles, this option just makes sense.
What U.S. Vote Foundation is Doing About Local Election Turnout
U.S. Vote Foundation (US Vote) has committed to address participation in local elections with information and communications to voters about local election dates and deadlines in their states. US Vote’s election dates and deadlines program aims to provide voters with a granular and comprehensive list of the many different deadlines associated with the election process, such as voter registration deadlines, deadlines for requesting absentee ballots, and deadlines for returning absentee ballots. US Vote tracks all these deadlines in a very detailed manner, ensuring that voters have the relevant information they need to participate in their local elections.
In addition to providing information about upcoming elections and deadlines, US Vote also offers voters the ability to create a Voter Account and sign up for Voter Alerts. This exclusive service sends voters customized reminders about upcoming election dates and deadlines via email. In an age with so much information, sometimes the things that are closest to home are missed.
The Bottom Line on Election Consolidation
We know this much: voters turn out less often when the stakes feel low. For presidential elections, they’re more likely to show and cast their ballot. But for primary and local elections, most eligible voters don’t make the extra effort. Vote-suppressive laws like onerous ID requirements, gerrymandering that eliminates true contests, and political mudslinging keep citizens from participating, too.
No one practice or reform, as far as we know today, will provide the much-needed silver bullet transforming our participation problem – and boosting us from 31st out of 35 international democracies. But the information we have so far on consolidating elections seems promising. Now, it’s a matter of encouraging administrators and legislators to take the issue seriously.
Indeed, we saw in the 2020 presidential election that nearly 63% of registered voters turned out to vote for either Trump or Biden (or a write-in!). To these voters, a lot was on the line; staying home wasn’t an option. At the following midterm election, when turnout typically stagnates, nearly 47% of voting-eligible citizens showed up to cast ballots for representatives, senators, and other local offices – a jump from any midterm election in the previous 40 years.
Anyone thinking about how to bring up local election turnout, cannot help but wonder what would happen if voters could cast their local election ballot at the same time as they vote for President. The evidence supporting higher turnout when elections are consolidated is already in for the states that have adopted this practice. US Vote encourages all other states to consolidate their elections as well. It could indeed be that silver bullet for election turnout.