The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Do low-turnout elections make the electorate more conservative? Not that much.

(Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

Everyone knows that far fewer people vote in midterm congressional elections than in presidential elections, and that even fewer participate in state, local or special elections that aren’t timed with either of the national ballots. In the past two years, both California and Iowa passed laws requiring those lower-level elections (a different kind in each case) to be held at the same time as the higher-profile contests, ostensibly to increase turnout.

In California only Democrats voted for the new law, but in Iowa the change was supported overwhelmingly by Republicans. Clearly, each state’s majority party thought higher turnout would give its side an advantage. But they couldn’t both be right, could they? Which one is it, and why? And what is the impact on public policy? That’s what we examined in our new study, which is forthcoming from the American Journal of Political Science.

Here’s the background

In 2016, California passed the “Voter Participation Rights Act” (Senate Bill 415) requiring some California local governments to hold their elections in November of even years, at the same time as state, congressional, and presidential elections. In 2017, Iowa passed House File 566 to require Iowa school districts to hold elections at the same time as municipal elections. In both cases, lawmakers argued that they wanted to increase voter turnout.

But the partisan subtext and objectives were different in each case. In California, legislators believed that high-turnout November elections bring in a proportionally larger share of Democratic voters. One political consultant explained: “Democratic turnout swells in November. Any measure that appeals to this electorate will fare better in November than it would have in June.”

In Iowa, however, Republicans were specifically trying to reduce the power of teachers’ unions. Iowa’s off-cycle school board elections typically see only single-digit voter turnout. Lawmakers believed that the only people who bother to vote in these elections are school employees, who have a clear personal (and financial) stake in the outcome of the election – and that school board candidates know it.

So which one was correct? Do low-turnout elections make the electorate tilt more conservative, or do they increase the power of well-organized interest groups?

Here’s how we did our research

To find out, we analyzed more than 10,000 school tax and bond referendums in California, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin since 2000. We examined whether school district tax or bond measures were more likely to pass during a November presidential election, a midterm election or an odd-year or special election.

We also compared voter characteristics in differently timed elections, including their demographics, likely partisanship and whether each voter was licensed to work in public schools, which we used as a proxy for school employment. For this portion of the analysis we used data from Catalist, a national vendor that works with campaigns on microtargeting efforts.

Both groups are right. Sort of.

We found that it’s true that when turnout is smaller, voters are more conservative. And when school-related elections are held in off years or times, school employees make up a larger share of voters.

But the effects are small — and for school-related elections, likely to offset each other. For example, during a low-turnout special election in an average school district, the Democratic share of the electorate is at most four points lower than in a presidential election — and the share of school employees goes up a point or two at most. Rarely did we find an election in which school employees made up more than 10 percent of the voters, even if overall turnout was very low. In a very close election, that might make a difference. But most referenda we studied were decided by much larger margins, and so these factors likely made little difference.

Seniors vote

But when it comes to what decides school-related elections, the biggest factor is voter age. In an off-cycle election, nearly half of all voters are age 50 or older — compared to more like a third of voters in a November presidential election. That’s an almost 40 percent increase in their share of the electorate.

School districts that want to raise taxes often think of senior voters as bad news. They are unlikely to have school-aged kids at home and, if they’re retired and on fixed incomes, may be particularly sensitive to any increase in property taxes. That’s what we found in three of the four states we examined: School tax and bond measures fail at higher rates during special elections, when older voters dominate the electorate.

But that’s not true in Texas, where state law permanently freezes all school-related property taxes after property owners turn 65. There, school tax and bond measures are most likely to pass during low-turnout odd-year and special elections, when seniors are most overrepresented.

Although limited to school-related referendums, our results suggest that legislators in both California and Iowa were onto something but that they’re also missing the bigger picture. Higher turnout does make the electorate more liberal and can help reduce the influence of mobilized special interest groups. But we should be realistic about the modest size of these effects. Older voters are those most likely to drive the electoral impact of election timing.

Vladimir Kogan is an assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University.

Stéphane Lavertu is an associate professor in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University.

Zachary Peskowitz is an assistant professor of political science at Emory University.