Nationwide the 2015 election had the lowest voter turnout the country has seen in 72 years, 36%. Countless state, county, city, and school races across the US went scarcely noticed by voters. San Francisco held a hugely controversial election that many commentators said was a battle for the city’s soul, with millions of dollars spent on ballot initiatives aimed at the city’s spiraling housing costs and rapid gentrification. Yet only 41% of registered voters cast ballots. Closer to my home, the city of Santa Barbara held a historic election, its first since switching to city council districts, which promised the potential to shake up City Hall, yet voter turnout was 38%.
Why Odd-Year Elections Keep People From Voting
Local governments that choose to hold their elections in odd-numbered years typically see far lower voter turnout, often dropping by half, and the voters that cast ballots are overwhelmingly whiter, older, and wealthier than those who participate in general elections.
Imagine a working immigrant mother who recently became a US citizen. She’s excited to vote, but has never done it before. After working long hours cleaning houses, picking her kids up from childcare, cooking them dinner and washing the dishes, she realizes it’s election day and the polls close in an hour. The local city council elections haven’t really been covered on TV, which focuses mostly on national news, and are rarely mentioned in the weekly local Spanish newspaper. The candidates don’t bother knocking on doors in her apartment complex, where few residents are eligible or registered to vote, and even fewer turn out during odd-year elections. She doesn’t know who is running for city council, what they stand for, or what issues are being debated. With time running out before the polling booths close, she decides she’ll wait to vote next year, when she can cast her ballot for the president.
The gap between voter turnout in national elections and odd-year local elections has widened over the years, with a few potential causes:
- Demographic change means there are more voters like the woman mentioned above, young people or immigrants who are new to voting and have less access to information about local politics.
- Americans are working longer hours, which means they feel more and more strained for time to follow local politics, research issues, and vote.
- As campaigns have become longer and more expensive, people living in cities or states where an election takes place every year feel overwhelmed and fatigued by trying to research and sort through information in seemingly endless election seasons.
- Local newspapers and TV stations have declined, gone bankrupt, and laid off investigative journalists, while national cable news like Fox News and national online news sites like the Huffington Post have boomed, leaving voters with scarce access to information about local issues.
The problem with odd-year elections made national headlines after the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, where off-cycle elections are one of the primary reasons why the city government so starkly lacked representation from the majority black community.
The Anti-Irish History of Odd-Year Elections
But why do these off-cycle elections even exist? What reason does a city have to hold an election separate from the state and national elections? Why spend extra taxpayer dollars to run a separate election when it clearly leads to lower voter turnout?
The answer lies in history. Off-cycle elections are mostly credited to Progressive Era reformers in the late 1800’s who saw them as a way to fight corruption in big cities. But they were also a favorite policy of anti-immigrant political groups who blamed rapidly growing populations of Irish and other immigrants for using urban political machines to get jobs and services for their communities.
Sarah Anzia is probably the leading academic scholar studying odd-year elections. While much of the attention on her work has focused on her suggestion that public employee unions are one of the major factors keeping municipal elections in odd years, I think something much more interesting is buried in her earlier examination of the history of odd-year elections. Their original intent was primarily to break the backs of Irish political organizations in big cities.
Anzia found that by the 1890’s, when Progressive Era reformers took up the cause of off-cycle elections for cities, there had already been a long history of politicians changing the dates of city elections to manipulate outcomes. There is no thorough national record of this history, but it can be dug up in case studies of individual cities. Off-cycle elections emerged during the mid-1800’s through what Anzia refers to as “partisan power plays”, political parties jockeying to change the rules of the game to help them win. Specifically in cities like New York and San Francisco, it was a result of an alliance between anti-corruption reform parties and nativist anti-immigrant parties who found a common enemy in the Democratic Party, which in many big cities had become dominated by a well-organized urban Irish voter turnout machine.
An Alliance Between Anti-Immigrant and Anti-Corruption Activists
For many reformers in the 1800’s, Irish and corruption were synonymous. The era was the height of a wave of immigration to the rapidly industrializing US from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe. Immigrants lived in extreme poverty, worked under highly exploitative conditions, and received little assistance or rights from the government. More than any other group, the Irish built political power in the US’s biggest cities in response to the intense racism Irish immigrants met when they arrived. Tammany Hall and other Irish-dominated political organizations ensured immigrant communities access to basic services, jobs and emergency assistance, built infrastructure and charities, and were rewarded by a loyal bloc of voters. Yet they also became a symbol of corruption, rewarding their supporters with government jobs and giving bribes to get what they wanted, especially under New York’s notorious Boss Tweed.
Of course history is written by the victors, and the late 1800’s political battles between middle-class Protestant whites of English descent and the working poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants are simplistically depicted as the good reformers versus the corrupt mobsters. There was corruption in the urban immigrant political machines no doubt. But poor people and immigrants voted for them because they provided basic infrastructure and human services in their neighborhoods and defended their rights, as opposed to the intensely racist treatment they got from parties like the Whigs or the Know Nothings. As we make policy today, we should examine this history with a critical eye to separate real anti-corruption efforts like civil service reform from shameless attempts to break Irish political power like odd-year elections.
The reform movements of the late 1800’s certainly had their discriminatory undertones, walking the fine line between hating corrupt Irish political machines and hating Irish people. Legendary reformer cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose work is shown in this post, is credited in history textbooks with taking down notorious Boss Tweed but often depicted Irish people as drunken violent monkey-like creatures who had taken over the country. The movement’s belief in rational scientific progress flirted at times with eugenics, the idea that keeping the poor and uneducated from breeding would further the human race. And the push for alcohol prohibition was often tied to the idea that Irish, Russians and other urban immigrant groups were drunks who were ruining the moral fiber of American society.
San Francisco and New York
But in the case of off-cycle elections, the switch was often won through a direct alliance between anti-corruption reformers and anti-immigrant bigots. In 1850’s New York, the racist nativist Know Nothing party allied with the Whigs (precursors to Republicans) in the state legislature to separate New York’s city election away from the state and national elections. Voter turnout for city elections plunged, especially for Democrats, who depended on working-class immigrant voters who failed to turn out in off-cycle elections.
Irish who came to San Francisco during the Gold Rush brought Tammany Hall-style political organization to the West Coast in the 1850’s. The People’s Party, a local San Francisco party that drew its support from both the financial elite and anti-Irish nativists, was born in response. During their decade of control of San Francisco, the People’s Party led a successful push to switch San Francisco to off-cycle elections by allying with Republicans in the state legislature to change the city’s charter.
These cities set the precedent for a trend that swept the country decades later. Today, our cities are facing low voter turnout and unequal representation because of a policy rooted in anti-Irish racism. There is no evidence now that cities with even-year elections have any more corruption than those with odd-years. But the much greater threat facing our democracy, the power of unlimited corporate money, is made much more powerful in low turnout off-years, when voters are disengaged and tuned out, and it’s easy to buy an election.
Today’s defenders of odd-year elections say that if local elections are moved to even-years that local issues will be drowned out by national politics. They say that the small turnouts for odd-year elections are actually a good thing—that a small group of citizens who are well-informed and pay attention to local issues are the ones who should make the decisions.
But is it possible that the “uninformed” voter has something meaningful to contribute to their community? That a young person or low-wage worker who rides the bus every day might actually have a better perspective on the city’s public transit system than a member of the Chamber of Commerce who has seen a presentation by a city official on the subject? That an undocumented immigrant or young black person may not go to the same dinner parties as city councilmembers and school board trustees, but they’ve experienced harassment at the hands of city police that the members of the Rotary Club have no idea about? That while some people’s definition of local issues are limited to parking and potholes, the family who just got evicted because they can’t afford rent might consider raising the city’s minimum wage to be an important local issue?
Odd-year elections are driven by a fear of the people that tears against the fabric of our democracy. It’s a fear that the people are too stupid to govern themselves. Although it might be couched in more polite language today, it’s the same fear of the ignorant Irish masses, mindlessly mobilized by political machines. Today’s defenders of odd-year elections should know the history of what they’re defending because they carry on its legacy today.