Off-year election fatigue in California: myth or legitimate affliction?

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

Were 84 percent of Angelenos in a pose similar to this on the day of the mayoral primaries? (Photo Flickr/FlackJacket2010)

Do you try to convince yourself that your vote doesn’t count? Has fulfilling your civic duty by voting become such an inconvenience you’ve considered forging a Doctor’s note to excuse you from engaging? Does pretentiously wearing the “I Voted” sticker no longer matter to you? Do you find yourself reading poll results on the papal odds rather than the mayoral odds even though you’re not Catholic? If you’ve answered yes to one or more of these questions, you may be among the thousands of Californians suffering from Election Fatigue. 

Don’t worry, although contagious, it’s a non-life-threatening affliction resulting from California’s constant election cycle.

More than a quarter of California cities hold their municipal elections in off-cycles or off-years, meaning they don’t coincide with state and federal elections in June and November of even-numbered years. As a result, citizens in the City of Los Angeles, for example, essentially suffer through a perpetual election season, with at least one election scheduled every single year, causing a widespread case of Election Fatigue.

Is there a cure? Technically yes, consolidated elections, but like any remedy it isn’t free from adverse side-effects, such as Ballot Fatigue (for which I’ll explain the symptoms later on). Analysts disagree on which condition is more detrimental to civic engagement. 

Yesterday, residents in 28 cities in Los Angeles County had the opportunity to head to the polls again, but few actually did. Despite participating in nearly 40 debates and spending millions of dollars on campaigns, candidates in the most publicized contest on the ballot, the Los Angeles Mayoral Race, have failed to generate voter excitement; turnout was a dismal 16 percent. 

In the last hotly contested mayoral general election, in 2005, only one-third of registered voters turned out to decide who would lead the nation’s second largest city for the next four years.  

Although these results are not atypical as voter participation in municipal elections is generally low, LA’s election calendar may be to blame. In fact, research shows that timing is the number one determinant of turnout in municipal elections. Turnout in local elections aligned with the state and federal election cycle is on average 36 points higher in comparison to those that are not. 

If off-peak elections depress voter participation, then why do so many cities persist in holding separate municipal elections? 

Critics of consolidating municipal elections argue that the fewer elections may result in an outbreak of Ballot Fatigue—a condition characterized by the inability to complete a long ballot resulting from confusion. By having to focus on too many complex issues and feeling overwhelmed and exhausted from having to make an increased number of decisions. 

Opponents contend that local-only elections ensure local issues aren’t overshadowed by more prominent outside races, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute for Politics at the University of Southern California. 

Voters may be more attentive to local issues, but their participation rates demonstrate that local races alone simply aren’t enough to draw them out to vote.

The argument also has a “sinister side,” explains Larry Gerston, author and California politics expert.  Campaign consultants aren’t the only group that stands to gain from stand-alone elections. 

“The people who have the most invested benefit, simply because of reduced turnout,” said Gerston. “The people who do turnout are likely to be much less representative of the overall electorate and it behooves those in power to hold elections at a time when they are likely to get the kind of turnout they want.” 

It’s much easier to win elections when turnout is low and messaging can be targeted to a much smaller and predictable sector of the electorate.  

Decisions made by elected officials at the local level have the greatest direct impact on people’s lives. When only a small unrepresentative group of the community elects these decision makers, it can distort the perceived policy preferences of the electorate. Likely voters and non-voters tend to differ in their political beliefs.  

“Elections legitimize the process,” said Gerston. “If you’re committed to opening up the system and making it easier for people to participate by taking away barriers, the first thing to consider is something like moving these elections.”

While a shift in the timing of elections could have a dramatic impact on participation rates, many municipalities are moving the dates for budgetary reasons.

The City Clerk of LA recently estimated the cost of administering a city-wide stand-alone election at $5.5 million.

“In this budgetary climate in which we are cutting necessary services for our taxpayers, consolidating elections seems like a fairly smart way of realizing budget savings,” said Schnur.  Rather than having to bear the entire cost of holding a local-only election, cities share the cost of administering consolidated elections. 

Knowing the tradeoffs what would you prefer?  Consolidated elections: fewer elections, longer ballots and a larger, more representative and less attentive group voters? Or off-cycle elections:  more elections, shorter ballots, and a smaller, less representative, and likely more informed group of voters?


Alexandra Bjerg

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