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How Low Voter Turnout Helps Public Employees

• August 25, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Ginny/Flickr)

To a surprising degree, as voter turnout goes down, public employee compensation goes up.

There’s been some talk recently about the effects of off-cycle elections—that is, elections that are held on a different date from national elections—on voter turnout and representation, particularly with respect to Ferguson, Missouri. This is a particularly interesting feature of American elections because it is something that we know depresses voter turnout substantially, and yet it persists. Why do we continue to hold these low turnout elections?

Sarah Anzia explains this nicely in her dissertation and new book on off-cycle elections. The key to understanding these elections’ persistence, Anzia shows, lies not in knowing how few people turn out to vote in them, but just who turns out to vote. Basically, it’s people with a personal stake in the election.

When the election is dominated by teachers, firefighters, and police officers, and their immediate friends and family, policies will follow.

The electorate in a presidential election consists of tens of millions of people, only a few of whom stand to directly benefit in a personal, material way depending on who wins. The vast majority of voters have some sense that things would be somewhat better under their chosen candidate than under the other one, but in a much more abstract way. And for the most part, these same people are voting in all the contests further down the ballot that day, including races for Congress, state legislature, city council, and school board. No doubt some voters, such as teachers and other public employees, stand to win or lose in a material way based on who wins city council and school board elections. But their votes are largely drowned out by those voters who showed up to vote in the presidential election and are just voting based on some other cues, or even randomly, further down the ballot.

If you instead hold these down-ballot elections in, say, spring of odd-numbered years, suddenly a much smaller electorate shows up—33 percent smaller, on average. The less attentive voters who just turned out for the presidential elections don’t show up this time; they might not even know the election is going on. But those voters with a direct personal interest in the election are sure to show up, and their voice is now much greater.

This is why, as Anzia finds, public employees in districts with off-cycle elections tend to be much better paid for their work. Teachers in school districts with off-cycle elections make more than those in districts with elections held concurrent with national ones, even controlling for the strength of their unions. She additionally finds that police officers are paid nearly $3,000 more per year if their city council is chosen through off-cycle elections, and firefighters make an additional $6,000 more per year under such circumstances. To a surprising degree, as voter turnout goes down, public employee compensation goes up.

Now, the Progressive reformers who first instituted off-cycle elections in many states in the early 1900s certainly framed it in more noble terms than this. As they saw it, local elections and state and national ones turned on very different sets of issues—there was no reason they should contain the same electorates. So local electorates would be more selective, consisting of people uniquely informed about local issues. (Ironically, Anzia notes, off-cycle elections probably helped the party machines that the Progressives so loathed, as they allowed machine supporters to dominate local elections.)

But the results are pretty plain. Interest groups can get more stuff out of politics if there are fewer other voters to win over. When the election is dominated by teachers, firefighters, and police officers, and their immediate friends and family, policies will follow.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

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