Partisan Power Play: The Origins of Local Election Timing as an American Political Institution
Anzia, Sarah F. 2012. “Partisan Power Play: The Origins of Local Election Timing as an American Political Institution.” Studies in American Political Development 26 (1): 24-49.
Eighty percent of American cities today hold their general elections on different days than state and national elections. It is an established fact that voter turnout in these off-cycle local elections is far lower than turnout in local elections held concurrently with state and national elections. In this paper, I demonstrate that the timing of city elections has been an important determinant of voter turnout since before the Civil War. By examining three large American cities over the course of the nineteenth century, I find that American political parties regularly manipulated the timing of city elections to secure an edge over their rivals. I show that the decisions to change the election dates of these cities were contentious, partisan, and motivated by an expectation of subsequent electoral gain. The Progressive municipal reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries continued in this tradition when they separated city elections from state and national elections, and the local election schedule they implemented has largely persisted until today.