Who Votes for Mayor?

The 2016 Election is now behind us – but across the country, local government officials are gearing up for the 2017 election cycle.

That’s right – in most U.S. cities (though not in Oregon), key offices like Mayors and city commissioners are elected in odd-year contests. And thanks to a major grant that CPS and PSU’s Population Research Center received last year from the Knight Foundation, our recent research has provided unprecedented insight into the question of “Who Votes for Mayor?”

Our research team — co-led by me and PRC Director Jason Jurjevich, with help from Kevin Rancik, Carson Gorecki, and Stephanie Hawke —  analyzed over 23 million voting records. The most visible finding of our work – looking at 50 cities across the U.S., including Portland, is that the general answer is voter turnout is “shockingly low.”

Across the 50 cities, turnout of eligible citizens averaged just over 20%. Eligible citizen turnout in 10 of the largest cities was an abysmal 15%, and in cities such as Las Vegas, Fort Worth, and Dallas it was in the single digits.

Our research revealed that the single most important determinant of voter turnout is age, overshadowing other factors such as household income, education, and race/ethnicity. In many communities residents 65 and older were 15 times more likely to cast a ballot than their younger counterparts between the ages of 18 and 34. The study was able to clarify how wide the voter age gap actually is.  Across all 50 cities, the median age of voters who actually cast ballots was 57, nearly a generation older than the median age (42) of eligible voters.

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Democracy is the core principle on which our constitution rests. Low voter turnout inevitably means that disproportionate influence will be exercised by a small segment of residents, affecting critical issues like schools, parks, housing, libraries, police, fire and transportation. This creates a strong motivation for local government candidates – not to mention elected officials – to pay more attention to courting relatively small shares of their communities – often to the detriment of paying attention to the much broader community.

Portland, incidentally, fared quite well in this research, with a 59.4% turnout, the highest of 50 cities studied. The biggest reason for this: the determinative mayor’s election in 2012 was one of the few held at the same time as the November Presidential election. But I also think that Oregon’s “vote at home” system may have also played a role.

There’s no large, 200+ page study associated with this work; rather, the project resulted in a highly interactive website by which citizens can zero into individual census tracts and compare a wide range of election-related metrics with such Census data as income, education, race/ethnicity, and employment rates.

For the full interactive website click here.

This post was written by Phil Keisling, Director of Center for Public Service and edited by CPS.