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  • The Voter Formation Project

What's the Deal With Off-Year Elections?

Hey y’all. Happy Friday!

Last week, you might’ve heard us talking about the start of early voting in Virginia - yep, voting. In 2021.

And that’s weird, right? Most of us think that elections always happen in even-numbered years, with elections for the House and Senate every two years and presidential elections every four. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

There are five states that hold important, statewide elections in off-years: Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, Mississippi, and Virginia. This year, we’re going to see elections for governor and for the state legislature in two of those: New Jersey and Virginia. And that’s not all: twenty-one more states hold local or municipal elections in off-years, including more than 75% of elections for mayors of the country’s 50 largest cities.

The Why

The reasons states hold off-year elections vary, but can generally be chalked up to two things: tradition, and voter suppression.

Take Mississippi, which began holding off-year elections in 1890 as a *direct* response to federal legislation that would protect Black voters at polling places. Because these protections only applied to *federal* elections, which are held in “on-years”, Mississippi’s move allowed the state to continue suppressing Black votes in statewide elections.

This legacy continues today: off-year elections see startlingly low rates of voter turnout, and the voters who do turn out tend to be disproportionately older, whiter, and wealthier than the population as a whole. And that’s no accident: low turnout tends to favor the status quo, which means that the people currently in power have little incentive to shift to a fairer, more representative system.

Just How Bad Is It?

Great questions, thanks for asking! It’s really bad.

In the most recent round of mayoral elections (all held on off-years), Fort Worth, Texas saw a voter turnout of 6%. In Las Vegas, Nevada, turnout was 9%. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma? 12%.

That’s not what elections are meant to look like. We’re not even sure that qualifies as democracy.

How Do We Fix It?

After decades of pretty pathetic voter turnout in off-year elections, a number of cities and state legislatures have made big changes. In 2015, California passed a law requiring cities with turnout below a certain threshold to switch elections from off- to on-years. This year, Arizona and Nevada did the same.

But that’s not enough: about 70% of cities still hold elections for some or all local offices on off-years.

Moving all elections on-cycle is a simple, doable, way to increase voter participation and make our democracy more robust. But until that day comes, we’re going to keep working to make sure every voter knows when they have an election coming up-- including on off-years.

Thanks for reading, y’all! Talk soon.

“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” – James Baldwin

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