Seemingly every week, a new poll reaffirms the dismal state of US politics and low levels of trust in the political system. Recently, Pew Research Center reported that just 4 percent of Americans surveyed say that the US political system is working very well. In a Tufts Tisch College poll, more than half of young Americans — ages 18 to 29 — surveyed think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Restoring faith in democracy will require action at all levels of government to bring a broader spectrum of people into the process.
A simple cost-saving step would ensure more voices in Massachusetts are heard: Move local elections to even years.
Holding local elections in odd-numbered years instead of aligning them with even-year federal and state elections effectively cuts voter turnout in half. Younger voters and voters of color are especially impacted. Research focused on local elections in California, which has moved to even-year local elections, shows that when local elections coincided with higher-visibility federal elections, turnout among younger voters nearly doubled. Turnout by Latinx and Asian American voters also increased significantly, and city voters looked more like the city’s residents overall.
In the current system, turnout in local elections is low. Despite a hotly contested open mayoral race in 2021, turnout in Boston was 28.9 percent. In New Bedford that same year, it was just 11 percent. Moving city elections to federal election years, when media attention, campaign outreach, and resources dedicated to voter engagement are far greater, would provide the impetus for more voters to participate in local decisions.
In addition, the voting population is often poorly representative of our communities as a whole. Shifting to even-year elections could improve representation both in the electorate and among elected officials. Research shows that this change improves turnout among demographic groups that are currently less well represented in local elections in Massachusetts, and according to one nationwide study, jurisdictions with higher turnout have a higher share of racial and ethnic minorities on their city councils, even after controlling for factors like city demographics.
Moreover, moving to even-year elections may save cities and municipalities money. Election administration is costly. The budget for Boston’s election department this fiscal year is nearly $7.8 million. That figure includes a 13 percent increase over last fiscal year to account for the fact that voters in Boston will head to the polls three times in the current fiscal year: for a municipal preliminary, a municipal general election, and a presidential primary. Reducing the number of elections the department must administer could result in substantial savings for local taxpayers.
Moving to even-year elections is doable. In Massachusetts, municipal election dates are set by each city’s charter. Currently, the charter of every city in the Commonwealth provides for elections to take place in November of the odd year. Many local officials operate under a misperception that this arrangement cannot be altered, in part because Massachusetts law on the subject can seem convoluted. However, election timing can be changed with legislative approval through a process known as a “home-rule petition.” Massachusetts cities should undertake this process, and the Legislature should approve these efforts. The Legislature could also facilitate such changes by amending state law to give cities the ability to align local and state election dates by right.
On Tuesday, voters throughout Massachusetts will go to the polls. They will select local officials to oversee a range of decisions impacting day-to-day life: the education of our children, the condition of our roads, and much more. These local elections are important and should not be happening this year. To support robust democratic citizenship and responsive government, local and federal elections should align in the same calendar year.
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg is director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University Tisch College. Peter Levine is a professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts Tisch College. Jessica S. Lieberman is a program officer at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.