Commentary

10/08/2013  by Alexandra Bjerg

California voters bedridden with election fatigue


Election fatigue is keeping voters in bed instead of at the polls. 

While I reluctantly waited in line for a Flu shot yesterday, I started thinking about another highly contagious affliction affecting thousands of Californians: Election Fatigue.

Although non-lethal, a statewide outbreak could undermine the integrity of our democracy and cost taxpayers millions. It is already bordering on an epidemic. The good news is, according to research conducted by the Greenlining Institute, a needle-free remedy may exist.  

The condition associated with extremely low voter turnout is caused by California’s perpetual election season. Many municipalities hold off-cycle elections, meaning they don’t coincide with state and federal elections in June and November of even-numbered years. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, I personally will have voted four times in 2013 alone. And in 2011, the last full odd calendar year, more than 1,500 races for local office and 172 ballot initiatives were on the ballot.

Democracy can be exhausting!  And based on the abysmal turnout for recent off-cycle elections, I’m not the only voter that thinks so. The Greenlining study shows how the election calendar has a significant impact on voter participation and representation. Turnout in odd-year elections is generally paltry and unrepresentative of the electorate. Likely voters and non-voters tend to differ in their political views.

"Past research tells us that the electorate in low-turnout elections tends to be older, whiter and more affluent,” said Michelle Romero, Greenlining’s Claiming Our Democracy Policy Director. “These odd year local elections could be putting people of color at a real disadvantage, and cities should take a hard look at this.”

In an effort to boost voter turnout and ensure more representative election results, the study suggests that municipalities consider shifting their election cycle to even years. However critics of election consolidation argue that local races may be overshadowed by higher profile state and federal races on a more crowded ballot.

"Some people worry about consolidating elections because the ballot might be too long,” Romero said. “But it's pretty clear from our study that even the last item on a long ballot in an even year is likely to draw more voters than anything that's on the ballot in an odd-year municipal election.”

A comparison of turnout rates for local issues reveals that despite down-ballot drop-off, turnout for local issues at the bottom of an even-year ballot is higher than turnout for any contest in an odd-year. A measly 23 percent of Angelenos bothered casting a ballot in the hotly-contested Los Angeles Mayoral race held earlier this year.

Conversely, the study found that turnout for a local measure that appeared at the end of the San Diego’s ballot in 2012 was 36 percent, 13 points higher than Los Angeles.

As cities continue to feel the budgetary squeeze, shifting election dates makes a lot fiscal sense. According to the analysis, the cost of conducting on-cycle elections is significantly less per vote than in off-year elections. With a price tag of $52.61 per vote compared to $1.67 per vote, the author found that Los Angeles spent 31 times more in the 2011 general election per vote than San Diego did in the 2010 general election.

The evidence is clear: the side-effects of a constant election cycle can be detrimental to civic engagement and municipal budgets. Municipalities are spending millions they don’t have on odd-year elections and note enough voters are participating.

“Reducing barriers (like multiple off year local elections) to voting would help ensure that California’s democracy is truly representative,” said Caroline Vance Bruister, Program Director for California Forward. Expanding and diversifying the electorate is vital to the legitimacy and integrity of our democracy.

Consolidating elections improves turnout, is cost-effective, and saves me a few trips to the polls; sounds like a win-win-win in my book. And while the shift won’t completely cure the Election Fatigue epidemic, it will reduce the symptoms for many. 

Categories: Democracy, Elections

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