Do Democrats Also Engage in Voter Suppression?

Jerry Wei, MPP

Tuesday, November 3, 2015 was Election Day in America.  What was at stake? These were local and state elections, including a high profile fight over discrimination. State, and in particular local elections are notorious for low-turnout, mostly because these elections are scheduled “off-cycle,” – that is, held in years when national-level elections are not being held.

For many concerned with civic engagement and voter turnout, moving local and school board elections “on-cycle” is inherently desirable. So-called consolidation bills aim to schedule local elections at the same time as national-level elections and, according to UC Berkeley political scientist Sarah Anzia’s research, from 2001 to 2011 over 200 such bills were introduced in state legislatures. Further, she points to polling showing that self-identified Democrats support these efforts by a 46% margin.

Why Democrats Support Low-Turnout Elections

However, Anzia argues that Democrats support off-cycle elections. Anzia found that of the 102 bills introduced between 2001 and 2011 putting school board elections on the same day as other elections, 72 were sponsored exclusively or predominantly by Republicans while just 23 were sponsored by Democrats. Furthermore, Anzia’s analysis shows that party affiliation explained 40% of the variation in votes for or against consolidation bills, with Republicans far more likely than Democrats to vote in favor. For the political website 538, Yale political scientist Eitan Hersh reproduced a subset of Anzia’s data for what he deems to be “stronger” consolidation bills (excluding school board election bills, for example), underscoring  the stark party contrast:

Why is this the case? Because only those with an explicit interest ( often Democratic base voters) in these elections—teachers, public servants, and their supporters—turn out. Anzia shows that these off-cycle elections lead to better benefits and salaries for teachers and public employees; teacher salaries are over 4% higher in districts with off-cycle elections.

The result of off-cycle elections may seem like a net gain for Democrats, who are concerned about the cuts to benefits and “accountability” measures being imposed on public servants, especially teachers.

What about Democratic Values?

These moves seem completely inimical to core values of the liberal movement, which has long-supported efforts to expand voter access and the right to vote. As Hersh writes in 538, those are the values upon which Democrats are fighting dangerous voter suppression laws supported by Republicans seeking to prevent voter fraud, a long-running obsession undermined by years of research.

The hypocrisy seems clear on its face: on one hand, Democrats are trumpeting the value of high voter turnout for national elections and, at the same time, preventing efforts to encourage more citizens to vote on local and school board issues. If Democrats are worried about policy goals such as supporting teachers and public servants, they should work to persuade voters, not work to lower their turnout.

Anzia is one of the few political scientists who have explicitly made the link between off-cycle elections and Democratic Party goals. Her research was prominently featured on the  538 on Election Day 2015, leading many (including me) to pepper article titles with click-bait allegations of Democratic voter suppression.  It will be interesting to see how her research shakes out over the years as other scholars study the issue.

In the meantime, I hope my fellow progressives can devote some more thought to the problem of off-cycle elections. Supporting access to the ballot is the liberal value about which I am most proud. It would be a shame if Democrats continued applying this value selectively.

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