The most important election?
Proportionally, our votes count most in municipal elections, yet that’s exactly when Americans are least likely to cast a ballot. For a project “Who Votes for Mayor?” Portland State University researchers analyzed 23 million voting records to understand participation in the most recent local elections in 50 U.S. cities. Among their key findings:
- When municipal elections are held in even-numbered years, and especially when they coincide with presidential contests, voter participation is much higher than in off-year elections.
- In 10 of America’s 30 largest cities, turnout in municipal elections was less than 15 percent.
- Voters 65 and older are 15 times more likely to cast a local ballot than those between the ages of 18 and 34.
We found the “Who Votes for Mayor?” data both fascinating and concerning, but the study did not include any Cuyahoga County communities, so we decided to take a look at local voting statistics.
Starting with Cleveland Heights and University Heights precinct level information posted online by the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections (BOE), we compared the number of ballots cast to the number of registered voters, and then calculated voter turnout in each city for six elections: the presidential elections of 2012 and 2016, the midterm election of 2014, and the municipal elections of 2011, 2013 and 2015.
Here is the voter turnout for those six elections:
Election Cleveland Heights University Heights Countywide
2016 (Presidential) 72% 75% 69%
2015 (Municipal) 41% 37% 38%
2014 (Midterm) 42% 41% 40%
2013 (Municipal) 30% 29% 30%
2012 (Presidential) 73% 73% 70%
2011 (Municipal) 46% 45% 43%
We are not statisticians, nor did the BOE provide the kind of detailed numbers that the Portland State University researchers were able to obtain for their study, but it’s clear that even in Cuyahoga County, where voter turnout tends to be higher than in many areas of the country, participation in off-year local elections is much lower than in presidential election years.
Our votes have much greater impact locally than in state or national contests, and the results of local elections—whether for municipal judges, school board members, city council members, or mayor—directly affect the quality of life in our communities.
As “Who Votes for Mayor?” notes, “Local elections are critically important. Every day, over half a million local elected officials are making important and influential decisions about core services like police and fire, transportation, housing, and drinking water.”
Yet voter turnout, especially in odd-year municipal elections, continues to decline, meaning that fewer and fewer—and older and older—voters have an outsize influence on matters of great civic importance. This situation tends to reinforce the power of incumbency and stifle the vitality of representative government at the local level.
As we have discussed before, Cleveland Heights is embarking on a Charter Review process and, among many possible changes, may consider:
- Changing the executive from a city manager to an elected mayor.
- Changing city council to a ward system, or a “mixed” council with only some members elected at-large.
City charters stipulate the timing of municipal elections, a matter we certainly would like to see the Cleveland Heights Charter Review Commission consider. To change municipal election years in University Heights would, of course, require a charter change in that city as well.
According to a March 2016 study by Rice University’s Center for Local Elections in American Politics (LEAP), California cities that aligned their mayoral elections with regular midterms (and especially those in presidential election years) saw dramatically increased voter turnout. Baltimore and Los Angeles recently changed their election dates to coincide with presidential elections.
When more of our citizens actually vote in local contests, they are more likely to take an interest in the workings of city government and demand accountability from local elected officials.
Like any other proposed change to a city’s charter, a measure changing the timing of local elections would have to go before the voters, in an off-year, odd-year election . . . like the one next month.
Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef
Carla Rautenberg is an activist and a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, who has lived in Cleveland Heights for most of her life. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.