HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — The outcomes of Tuesday’s races won’t be known until the polls close, but one thing is already nearly certain: Far fewer people will actually vote than voted in November’s presidential elections, meaning the winners will be chosen by a small percentage of the people they’ll govern.
That might not matter if the people who vote were a representative sample of the electorate. But when turnout is low, they’re not.
People who vote in high-turnout elections are “simply more representative of the entire electorate both demographically and ideologically,” said Connor Phillips, a political scientist and Ph.D candidate at Harvard University. For example, he said, young people tend to turn out in relatively robust numbers for presidential elections — but in paltry numbers for other elections.
But how do you increase turnout for municipal elections? In a variety of ways, sure, but one way is more important than the rest.
“Research has shown that election timing is the single most important important predictor of turnout in municipal elections,” Phillips said.
More precisely, he said, municipal elections that coincide with federal elections have far higher turnout than those that don’t. It’s not just theory, Phillips reported in this paper. After California started requiring many of its cities and towns with low turnout to move their elections onto federal election dates — for example, to coincide with presidential elections — those same low-turnout cities and towns saw their turnout spike by 20 percentage points, he said.
The solution here?
“My recommendation to Pennsylvania would be to change the timing of the local and judicial elections to align with the timing of federal elections,” Phillips said.