Who governs: voters or organized interests? The answer may depend on when the election is held

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Tyler Steelman, covers the article by Adam M. Dynes, Brigham Young University, Michael T. Hartney, Boston College and Sam D. Hayes, Boston College,Off-Cycle and Off Center: Election Timing and Representation in Municipal Government”.

“Who governs?” has been the topic of much debate regarding the power of voters versus organized interests in local elections in the United States. Some scholars believe that voters—i.e. the mass public—influence the direction of policies in cities when they vote for candidates. By casting votes for candidates who will eventually lead governments as mayors and councilors, voters influence the direction of their community.

Others, though, argue that organized interests—whether a group of citizens or a special interest group—have a greater influence on the direction of policy than do voters. Groups exercise their influence by bringing together like-minded voters to elect the candidates of their choosing.

Adam Dynes, Michael Hartney, and Sam Hayes offer a fresh perspective on this debate in their new APSR article: “Off-Cycle and Off-Center: Election Timing and Representation in Municipal Government.” The authors show that the timing of elections helps clarify when voters or organized interests have the greatest influence on local politics. They find that local elections that occur off-cycle are more likely to push policy in the direction of organized interests and away from the preferences of a city’s voters when those preferences conflict with the interest groups’.

Elections in the United States for many federal and state offices occur in November of even-numbered years. However, almost 80 percent of cities have “off-cycle” elections, meaning that they are held at difference times than federal and state elections.

By examining the policy responsiveness of 1,600 of America’s largest cities, the authors find that communities that elect their local officials “on-cycle”—i.e., at the same time as state or federal elections—have greater policy responsiveness to their voters than communities that hold elections off-cycle. Specifically, the analysis shows that cities with the most conservative residents enact more conservative fiscal policies—but less so when elections are held in odd-numbered years.

“the evidence presented by Dynes, Hartney, and Hayes demonstrate that tangible policy differences occur depending on when an election takes place.” When elections are held off-cycle, the policy influence of organized interests increases relative to a city’s voters. For example, cities that elect their officials off-cycle spend about twice as much per capita on city employees than would typically be preferred by voters in the most conservative cities. This points to the relative influence of organized groups (like city workers) in moving policy farther away than where the average voter of a city may prefer.

As state governments debate whether to change their electoral calendars to require local elections to occur on-cycle, the evidence presented by Dynes, Hartney, and Hayes demonstrate that tangible policy differences occur depending on when an election takes place. In addition to the potential increase in voter participation that could occur if federal, state, and local elections were consolidated, moving city elections to be on-cycle may also strengthen democratic representation in American cities.