Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


What Makes Us Politic

voting-sticker

(Photo: Ginny/Flickr)

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.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.