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Few people are expected to vote in this year’s ‘off-cycle’ elections. That can be fixed.

Holding state and local elections in even years — alongside national elections — means that voters more accurately represent the cities they live in

The United States just had its highest-turnout presidential election. And yet this year, as in every odd-numbered year, voters nationwide will again go to the polls, this time for state and local “off-cycle” elections that don’t align with national contests. On Sept. 14, California voters will weigh in on whether to recall and replace Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). In November, Virginia and New Jersey will vote for governor and state legislative representatives. Many cities, including New York City, will elect mayors.

But very few people will vote. Nationwide, well under a quarter of all adults cast ballots in the typical off-cycle city election. Even fewer vote for local offices such as school board.

Who wins and who loses when turnout is low? Will a low-turnout recall election in California express the will of the people — or will a tiny share of disgruntled voters decide the outcome? Will a small and unrepresentative share of Virginia voters determine control of the state legislature? Here’s what our research found.

Boosting turnout

In seeking to improve U.S. elections, the House and state legislatures have focused on such issues as mail-in voting, drive-through voting and early voting. However, researchers find that most of these changes will have a small effect on voter turnout.

On the other hand, holding local elections in November of even years — so that they take place on the same day as national contests — significantly boosts voter participation, albeit not in the national elections that get the most media attention. Concurrent elections make voting in all contests — especially local contests — easier for voters. Every study that has looked at U.S. election timing finds that moving to what social scientists call “on-cycle elections” at least doubles voting in local elections.

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But would it encourage a more representative electorate?

We don’t know whether this increased turnout also means an electorate that more accurately represents the general population in race, socioeconomic status, age and political orientation. Some maintain that higher turnout would help groups on the political left more than those on the right. Little research has been done on this.

To find out, we conducted a study. We collected data on all California city elections, about 2,000 contests, during 2008 through 2016. Many cities changed election timing for reasons including cost savings as well as a California law. Those changes gave us a chance to examine whether different groups of people turned out to vote in local contests — within the same city — depending on when the election was held.

After identifying the election dates, we looked to the official voter file to identify voters who cast ballots in these elections. By combining the voter file data with detailed demographic information about each voter from a company that helps campaigns with microtargeting, we could see how the composition of the electorate within each city changed if their election dates changed.

Moving to a more representative electorate

Briefly, the answer is yes. In on-cycle elections, those who cast ballots are substantially more representative of the local population in race, age, income and partisanship. In off-cycle California elections, White voters made up on average more than two-thirds of the voters, although they made up only about half of these cities’ populations.

When cities shift to holding municipal elections on the same day as presidential contests, the White share of voters declines by nearly 10 percent. In off-cycle elections, the Latino share of voters is about half the group’s share of city residents. When local elections are held on cycle, Latinos make up about 24 percent of the voters, which is closer to the 30 percent that they are of those cities’ populations.

What’s more, in on-cycle years, voters’ ages more accurately represent the ages of the cities’ residents. Older Americans make up about twice as large a percentage (nearly 50 percent) of off-cycle voters as they make up of the city’s adult residents. But when municipal elections are held on the same day as presidential elections, their proportion of voters drops to 28 percent, closer to their share of the city’s population.

Finally, Democrats are generally slightly underrepresented in off-cycle elections — while their turnout is more consistent with their proportion of the city’s residents when votes are held during national elections. We also find significant and similar effects for class and for other racial and some other ethnic minority groups.

On-cycle elections probably would not bring Americans all the way to proportional participation, but they would make a big difference. What’s more, by comparing the total number of votes cast in local and national races, we find that the vast majority of voters do choose candidates in local races.

Of course, all our analysis comes from California elections. But we also performed a nearly identical analysis in Florida, where we found that moving to on-cycle elections has a similar effect, significantly altering the composition of the electorate so that it more accurately represents the population.

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Reforming election timing

Progressive reformers who promoted off-cycle elections in the early decades of the 20th century argued that they would encourage voting based more on merit and local issues rather than partisan considerations. Now, however, the changing media environment and growing nationalization of elections mean that partisanship has seeped into local elections, regardless of timing. And the cost of off-cycle elections — an electorate that looks nothing like the local population — hardly seems like a win for democracy.

Three states of different partisan hues — Arizona, California and Nevada — have passed laws mandating on-cycle elections. The Washington legislature is considering a similar reform. Americans broadly support these changes, across party lines.

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Zoltan Hajnal is a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego.

Vladimir Kogan (@vkoganpolisci) is an associate professor of political science at Ohio State University.

G. Agustin Markarian is a PhD candidate at the University of California at San Diego.