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A New CU report explores how consolidating New York City’s local elections with presidential or gubernatorial elections will boost turnout, diversify the electorate, and save money

New York City has suffered from low voter turnout in municipal elections for decades. Essential voting reforms that have passed in recent years contributed to more open and equitable elections but have not led to substantially higher turnout rates. A key reason for low voter turnout in the races for local offices–mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough presidents, and city council–is that they are held in odd-numbered, “off-cycle” years rather than aligned with gubernatorial (midterm) or presidential elections, which are held in even-numbered years.

A new report by Citizens Union aims to examine the potential benefits and impacts of moving New York City’s municipal elections “on-cycle” to even-numbered years, to coincide with the presidential or gubernatorial/midterm elections. Using historical turnout data from New York, comparative data from other cities, and academic research, we analyze how consolidating elections would affect overall turnout, demographics of the electorate, and administrative burdens and costs. The report also looks into the experience of cities that have moved their local elections on-cycle in recent years, like El Paso, Phoenix, and Baltimore, and chart a path to change the election year in New York.

The report’s findings clearly show that moving New York City’s municipal elections to an even-numbered year would drastically improve voter turnout for both the top of the ticket and down-ballot races, even when accounting for potential drop-off in voting that may occur from a longer ballot. Turnout gains for primary elections are harder to assess, but election consolidation would likely have relatively modest effects in boosting voter turnout in local primaries.

Consolidating elections would also likely change the makeup of the electorate in local elections. Younger voters and voters of color, especially the Latinx community, would be better represented in high-turnout, even-year elections. Election administration may also benefit from consolidating local elections. Running elections every other year would likely mean significant taxpayer savings. Consolidated elections also can improve election administration by giving election officials an additional year to plan and prepare for future elections.

The report’s key findings are

  • Elections held in even-numbered years yield higher turnouts
      • In New York City’s general elections, turnout is consistently highest for presidential elections, followed by gubernatorial elections. Municipal elections receive the lowest vote totals. Since 2001, mayoral elections have averaged 29.5% turnout, gubernatorial elections averaged 35.6%, and presidential elections averaged 60.8%.
      • In other large cities in New York State, turnout over the last three to five general elections was at least double in presidential contests and about 10 percent higher in gubernatorial contests compared to odd-year municipal elections.
      • Across the nation, “on-cycle” municipal elections have significantly higher turnouts than “off-cycle” contests. The six largest U.S. cities that hold local elections in odd-numbered years see average mayoral turnouts of 10% to 38%, while the six largest cities that have their elections in even-numbered years see average mayoral turnouts that range between 50% and 75%.
      • Even-year elections also yield higher turnouts for down-ballot races. When comparing general elections for the New York State Assembly and the New York City Council in the same geographic areas, the Assembly races in even-numbered years had higher turnouts than Council races held in odd-numbered years.
  • Moving local elections to even-numbered years increases turnout
      • In all cities that transitioned from odd- to even-numbered year mayoral elections, turnout immediately increased drastically and remained high in the following election cycles.
      • Examples of cities that consolidated their local elections with statewide or federal elections include Phoenix, AZ; Austin, TX; El Paso, TX; and Baltimore, MD. Turnout rates in these cities increased by 240% to 460%. Los Angeles held its first even-year mayoral election in November 2022, nearly doubling voter turnout in the city.
      • Because ballots in consolidating elections are longer, more voters do not complete the entire ballot (also known as ballot drop-off). But the number of new voters gained in consolidated elections far exceeds the votes lost due to ballot-off.
  • Primary elections and voter turnout per election year
      • It is difficult to compare primary election turnouts between odd- and even-numbered years because of New York City’s relatively unique closed partisan primary system, the varying levels of competitiveness in the primary races for governor and president in the last twenty years, and changing primary dates.
      • However, data suggests that moving local elections to even-numbered years would have relatively modest effects, if any, in boosting turnout for primary elections compared with the impact on the general election.
      • A solution for low turnout rates in New York City primaries would likely be found in opening the primary system and allowing all registered voters to vote (“open primaries”).
  • Electorates in even-numbered years are more representative of the population
      • Studies have found that the median age of voters in local elections held in even-numbered years is significantly lower than in odd-years. In New York City, young voters are far better represented in presidential elections than in local elections. For example, voter turnout among 18-29 year-olds in the presidential elections of 2016 and 2020 was five-fold larger than in the municipal elections in 2013 and 2021.
      • Studies also found that municipalities with off-cycle elections have electorates that skew whiter and wealthier. In contrast, cities that shifted to on-cycle elections moved closer to their actual demographic makeup.
      • In New York City, a comparison of voter turnout among different racial and ethnic groups in different election years found that majority-minority assembly districts saw the sharpest turnout increases in even-numbered years compared to odd-numbered years. Latinx-majority districts saw the largest turnout gains. The data suggests that if New York City moved its mayoral election from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years, turnout gains would be highest for communities of color.
  • Other benefits and challenges to moving local elections on-cycle
      • Consolidating elections will reduce the fiscal cost of election administration, possibly by tens of millions of dollars. No citywide elections would be held in odd-numbered years if municipal elections were moved.
      • Consolidating elections will reduce administrative fatigue and allow the New York City Board of Elections to adequately prepare for the next election.
      • Consolidating elections is a popular policy among people of all partisan backgrounds and has been approved every time it was on the ballot before voters across the nation.
      • Consolidating elections could lead to a different media environment, where less attention is given to local elections. However, experiences from other cities show it is not a significant issue.
  • Moving local elections to even-numbered years is a long process
      • Moving city elections year requires amending the State Constitution, which currently mandates odd-numbered year elections for all New York cities.
      • Amendments to the constitution and corresponding state law could take different forms, depending on the power granted to the legislature or local governments to set their own election calendar.
      • Moving municipal elections on cycle would still leave other offices on the ballot in odd-numbered years. In New York City, these include judicial positions and district attorneys. Those elections could also be consolidated into even-numbered years. This report does not cover this question.
      • When transitioning between off-cycle and on-cycle elections, cities need to decide whether to extend terms by one year (consolidation with congressional midterms and gubernatorial election) or shorten terms by one year (consolidation with presidential elections).
      • The ballot will need to be redesigned to change the order of offices on the ballot.

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