As far as recent history is concerned, voter turnout in most major U.S. city elections can accurately be described as anemic. On Tuesday in Philadelphia, just about 27 percent of registered voters went to the polls to give Jim Kenney a landslide victory in the city’s Democratic mayoral primary. In Los Angeles, 23 percent bothered to show up in 2013 for the sleepy election that Mayor Eric Garcetti won. Even New York’s high-profile 2013 election, which brought Mayor Bill de Blasio to power, attracted just 26 percent of registered voters to cast a ballot, the lowest turnout in that city since at least 1953. For many observers, that election signaled a historic repudiation of the aggressive police tactics and warm embrace of the super-rich that characterized the Michael Bloomberg era. But in a larger sense, it also proved that most New Yorkers didn’t care either way.
The question of why U.S. voters turn out in such low numbers, in all sorts of elections, has become a perennial one: Americans, caught up working longer hours and in thrall to handheld electronic distraction, seem unconcerned about who runs their government. Turnout for presidential elections is low but actually rather consistent, hovering between about 49 percent and 64 percent for a century (compared to between 33 and 49 percent in mid-terms). But local election turnout averaged a much lower 21 percent as of 2011 and has, according to a differently measured set of available data on local elections (a sticky point I’ll get to later), declined sharply from the mid-twentieth century.
In academia, turnout is a question mostly tackled by political scientists who look at data reflecting things like “campaign intensity” to figure out what factors might encourage people to vote in greater numbers. Thomas M. Holbrook and Aaron C. Weinschenk found that more campaign spending on behalf of challengers, shifting local elections to coincide with national contests, and making nonpartisan elections partisan are all factors that could drive higher turnout. In their examination of the character of local government, Zoltan L. Hajnal and Paul G. Lewis argue that “less outsourcing of city services, the use of direct democracy, and more control in the hands of elected rather than appointed officials” would also be helpful.