We should eliminate off-cycle elections in Mass.

Consolidating elections could boost turnout, reduce racial divides

FORMER GOVERNOR Deval Patrick once said, “Massachusetts invented America.” For a state that prides itself on shaping American democracy, Massachusetts faces a wicked participation problem. And the current proposed solutions—like making mail-in voting permanent in state elections—do not adequately address our biggest ballot problem. 

At the local level, where critical decisions are made, turnout is abysmal. This democratic shortfall deepens existing divides— those who vote in our Commonwealth’s local elections are significantly whiter and wealthier than the overall population.

Recent polling from Policy For Progress and MassINC Polling Group shows that such discrepancies may determine the outcome of Boston’s mayoral preliminary. The poll of 453 voters who participated in the November 2020 general election used voter file records to forecast candidate strength based on voter turnout level. Among those with the highest “turnout score,” City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George was at 23 percent – more than the combined support for Councilor Andrea Campbell (11 percent) and Acting Mayor Kim Janey (8 percent). Among those November 2020 voters with the lowest “turnout score,” Campbell and Janey support was more than 2.5 times Essaibi George’s. 

Campbell and Janey are Black. Essaibi George, who identifies as an Arab-Polish American and woman of color, is endorsed by the firefighters union.

Like most other municipalities, turnout in Boston in off years is pathetic: only 16.5 percent of registered voters cast ballots in Boston’s 2019 city council election. Secretary of State Bill Galvin is predicting turnout to be even lower than in 2013, despite Boston growing by 9 percent over the past decade. Turnout is not only low, but also racially skewed. Hispanic turnout was almost six times lower in the 2019 off-cycle election than in the 2020 presidential race. The share of Hispanic voters in the electorate was also 39 percent lower in 2019. Local elections determine control over public education – in a city where 43 percent of public school children are Hispanic, this loss of Hispanic voice in local government exacerbates existing racial disparities. 

What accounts for the low turnout and racial disparities in local races? The problem is simple: Boston, like 80 percent of American cities, holds its local elections in odd-numbered years, or “off-cycle.” This practice dates back a century, when Progressive Era reformers believed that off-cycle elections would insulate local contests from national politics. In reality, however, this practice dramatically depresses turnout.

A recent issue brief released by policy action lab Policy for Progress explains why. Holding local elections off-cycle places an extra burden on voters by forcing them to know the date of their local election and take another trip to the polls. Without high-profile national races on the ballot, this added burden often means the difference between voting and staying home.

As turnout drops, voters become less representative. When more than 80 percent of the population does not cast a ballot (as we saw in Boston in 2019), a small minority makes vital decisions that affect the entire city.\ 

Low turnout also allows special interests to dominate. Organized groups use the low turnout in off-cycle elections to mobilize only those voters who support their agenda. And because turnout is low, supporters of special interests make up a greater share of the total vote. This means a small, organized minority can gain outsize influence in local elections. Thus, Massachusetts politicians never truly face a challenge before the full electorate.. 

This problem extends beyond local government—state legislative elections are overwhelmingly uncontested, and Democrats hold supermajority control in both chambers. Even elections for higher profile offices like governor are held in off-years, when turnout is lower and less representative.

The disproportionate clout of white voters and special interests affects representation. A recent study found that whites are overrepresented on American city councils by 19 percent, when compared to their share of the population. This underrepresentation is especially prevalent in Massachusetts’ Gateway Cities. According to a MassINC report, people of color make up 50 percent of Lowell’s residents, but only 20 percent of its elected leaders; in Brockton, people of color are underrepresented by 56 percent.

This has policy implications. There’s an old saying in political science: “if you don’t vote, you don’t count.” Politicians lack incentives to address issues important to nonvoters. When people of color don’t vote in off-cycle local elections, politicians can exclusively cater policy toward the wealthy whites and special interests that do vote. As a result, people of color lose out.

How do we solve this problem? There’s a simple fix: eliminate off-cycle elections.

By moving local elections to coincide with national contests, cities remove the added burden on voters, thus increasing turnout. Research supports this reform. Scholars calculated that combining local and national elections increases turnout by about 29 percent, calling election timing the single greatest factor in increasing turnout.

State legislators could eliminate off-cycle elections by instructing municipalities to amend election timing rules in their city charters. This change would also save the city money—holding off-cycle elections can cost more than twice as much as holding local elections in presidential years.

And it’s what the voters want. According to a MassINC Polling Group survey released earlier this year by Policy for Progress, 62 percent of voters say Boston should consolidate its local and national elections. Only 31 percent disagree – that means twice as many voters prefer combining elections. Majorities of White (68 percent), Latino (56 percent), and Black (51 percent) voters support consolidation. The proposal also receives strong support across age categories, education levels, income brackets, neighborhoods, and political parties.  

Eliminating off-cycle elections would increase turnout, reducing the outsize influence of white voters and special interest groups. It would free up money for critical services like housing, public transit, and education. And the data tells us that it’s politically feasible – Boston voters support election consolidation. 

Meet the Author

Sophia Acker

Fellow, Policy for Progress
It’s time for politicians in Boston and in municipalities throughout the state to be accountable to the full electorate. The simple move to eliminate off-cycle elections will make local democracy more robust, representative, and equitable – and save money along the way. In the process, we’ll live up to our history.

Sophia Acker is a fellow at Policy For Progress and the author of a  policy brief on this topic.