Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Um…there was an election last week?

May 23, 2011 by Holly Munson


Here in Philadelphia, the National Constitution Center's home, citizens voted in a municipal primary election on May 17, casting ballots for mayor, city council seats, and other local and state offices. Well, let's backtrack... some of the citizens voted. To be precise, 17.6 percent of registered Democrats and Republicans voted.

Yikes. How did 82.4 percent miss the memo?

As noted in local news reports, there were a handful of factors contributing to the dismal turnout, including the rainy weather (not that that should be an excuse... right?) and the sense that the incumbent mayor, Michael Nutter, was sure to win. In addition, the timing of the election was "off-cycle"--it was held on a day other than the national Election Day* and was not concurrent with a larger election.

In contrast to this display of voter apathy, the 2012 presidential campaign circus is getting its show on the road. Perhaps it's no surprise that with all the media attention presidential elections receive, they tend to yield the highest voter turnout rates--about 50 to 55 percent of the voting-age population. The next most voter-attracting types of elections are midterm congressional and gubernatorial elections, with 37 to 42 percent of the voting-age population. Primary elections see even lower turnout rates. And the lowest voter turnout rates of all: city, school district, and other local government elections. (All percentages above and below cited here.)

As it turns out, timing is key when it comes to encouraging local election participation. A sure way to draw in voters is to schedule local elections around the same time as a larger election. For example, one study found that when city elections were held concurrently with presidential elections, the voter turnout rates were 36 percent higher than off-cycle elections.

So what do these trends mean for voters? This article points out that low voter turnout can provide an opportunity for special interest groups to wield more influence, since their active supporters are likely to represent a higher proportion of the voters. The same principle can be applied to individual voters: in elections where turnout is typically low, your vote can make even more of a difference. So next Election Day, whether it's Nov. 2 or May 19, make your voice heard and vote!

Want to learn more about voting trends? In 2010 the National Constitution Center partnered with the National Conference on Citizenship to produce the first Civic Health Index report for Pennsylvania, available here. The NCoC has also released Civic Health Index reports for the nation and several states and cities, available here. The reports are released each September.

*Election Day is on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.


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