Right now, in most of the United States, gubernatorial elections aren’t at the same time as presidential elections. Most are in midterm election years; for example, as I write this article in 2018, there are thirty-six gubernatorial elections underway. In 2016, the last presidential election cycle, there were only eleven gubernatorial elections.
This is bad, because it means most governors are more insulated from public opinion than other elected officials. Presidential elections are when most voters show up to the polls; turnout is lower in midterm elections.
Governors who are more insulated from public opinion are less accountable to the public and have more reason to cater to special interest groups over the general interest of the public. This in turn leads to lower approval ratings and higher levels of corruption in the state government — which are clear measures that something has gone wrong.
Less public accountability means more corruption
When we look at corruption on a state by state basis, it seems clear that there is some sort of relationship between corruption and election schedules. The difference between corruption convictions in states with presidential-year gubernatorial elections (n=11) and states without (n=39) is fairly significant (p=0.021).
Some of the states most notorious for corruption problems, including Louisiana and New Jersey, are among the states with odd-year gubernatorial elections. Why should a governor being elected in lower-turnout years mean more corruption?
Higher-turnout elections involve more public scrutiny — more information getting out to voters, better news coverage, and more spending. The larger number of voters dilutes the impact of special interest groups at the ballot box. The same is true for any other thing meant to affect an election result: Donating a thousand dollars, stuffing a hundred extra ballots into the ballot box, giving a public endorsement, or directing news coverage towards a candidate all have a smaller effect on a larger election.
More unpopular governors
A basic truism of democracy is that higher voter turnout is better. This is the basic idea behind democracy: The people will elect someone who is going to solve the problems they are concerned with.
Approval ratings measure how satisfied the electorate is with the person they elected. Voters in states that don’t elect governors during presidential years are less likely to think their governor is doing a good job, and more likely to think their governor is doing a bad job.
This is a large and significant difference, and it can’t be explained away with partisan effects. It’s hard to know how much of this is due to governors making unpopular decisions, how much is due to increased levels of corruption, and how much is simply due to less popular candidates being elected, but it’s easy to see the effect.
From more public accountability to less
Corruption and low approval ratings are both tied to election schedules that reduce public accountability. Unfortunately, the long-term trend over the past hundred years has been towards those election schedules, particularly in the period from 1960 to 1988.
Governors used to be more accountable to voters at large. As recently as 1960, a majority of states had gubernatorial elections during presidential election years. By 1988, fewer than a quarter of all states did. Today, only eleven out of fifty states hold gubernatorial elections during presidential election years.
The shift has been coupled with a gradual increase in the average length of a governor’s term in office. It’s not clear that changes to a midterm schedule was intended to insulate the governor from public accountability, but they have clearly had that effect.
Why not let the governors be independent from the swings of national politics?
One of the two most common defenses of the practice of shifting state and local elections away from the federal election schedule is to insulate local issues from the whims and wild swings of national politics. (The other is the elitist, and ultimately anti-democratic, contention that lower turnout in a democratic election is a good thing.)
There are two problems with this argument. One is that federal, state, and local governments aren’t independent political systems.
The second problem is that whims and wild swings have much more of an effect on low-turnout elections, not high turnout elections. The voters who turn up to vote in midterm elections pay attention to national politics.
Since they pay attention to national politics, and are likely to be motivated by shifts in national politics, the opposite effect is more visible. States whose governors are on a presidential election schedule are on a much more even keel from year to year, while national political factors play a larger role in gubernatorial races in midterm elections. (E.g., as very clearly happened in 2006 and 2010.)
Plainly, putting a gubernatorial election in a midterm year does not shield it from national politics or sudden shifts in voting patterns. What it does is lower turnout, and that makes the election more affected by almost any external factor, including national politics.
What should be done?
First, this is a widespread problem, but not a problem for every state. If you live in a state with a good gubernatorial election schedule, like North Carolina, it’s worth protecting that feature of your state’s system of government if you hear about an effort to change it.
Second, state election systems are a lot easier to change than national election systems. State laws — even state constitutional amendments — are far easier to change than the federal constitution, and state legislatures are pretty responsive to citizens in many states. This is easier to fix than the Electoral College.
Third, how elections work is important, and what I’ve talked about here doesn’t just apply to governors. As a general principle, we should be trying to consolidate the election calendar. Unfortunately, the trend in the opposite direction isn’t limited to governors, either; state and local officials have been slowly spreading out state and local elections in a way that drives down turnout.