We, the people of the United States of America, have a voter turnout problem. One of the possible solutions? Getting rid of midterm elections.
This would be a radical change; I am not personally sure it is the best solution, and it is certainly a difficult one to implement. However, we can — and should — think about why it might be better, and what we might do in order to increase turnout. In particular, even if we do not get rid of midterm elections entirely, we should try to consolidate state and local elections in order to increase participation by voters.
What would a midterm-free election schedule look like?
Eliminating midterm elections on the federal level would require changing the term length of representatives and senators. Representatives are currently elected every two years; eliminating midterms would mean doubling this term length to four years. Senators are currently elected every six years; eliminating midterms would require either moving to a four-year term or an eight-year term.
An eight-year term would preserve the intention of the Founding Fathers to have a Senate that changes more slowly than the rest of the government. Conveniently, with two senators per state, this means that every state would elect one senator in each four-year election cycle.
Why get rid of midterms?
I’m writing this in 2018, in the wake of a midterm election that set a new record for turnout: Slightly over 50% of eligible voters. This is a higher level of turnout than in any midterm election since before women were allowed to vote. It’s great news, right? Well… it’s good news of a sort.
The bad news is that our record high midterm turnout looks a lot like the record low parliamentary election turnout in France last year. France’s election turnout rates are more typical for a developed democracy, which is to say that their turnout in national elections rarely dips below 50%.
There are many factors that influence voter turnout. According to many measures — interest in politics, affiliation with political parties, et cetera — Americans ought to turn out to vote in high numbers. One of the key differences between America and other democracies around the world: We have elections more often.
The average American voter doesn’t cast fewer votes than voters in other democracies; instead, their votes are spread out between a larger number of elections, which makes for lower turnout in any given election. Some political scientists identify voter fatigue as a major factor in the low turnout seen in the United States for midterms and off-year elections.
Another related factor is that with each state and city on its own election schedule, some voters, especially voters who have recently moved, may not even be aware of the different election schedule until too late to register to vote for the election.
Consolidating state and local elections
Federal elections aren’t the main offenders in the multiplication of election dates. Half of all Congressional elections happen in presidential election years with high turnout. Less than half of state level elections happen in presidential election years; only 11 out of 50 governors will be up for election in 2020, for example.
Every state sets its own rules for scheduling elections; and in many states, the schedule of local elections is up to the local government. The result of this is that local election schedules vary even more than state election schedules, sometimes taking place in a different month than state and federal elections.
The multiplicity of election schedules affects turnout in two ways. In addition to increasing the number of different elections that a voter must vote in, a voter who has moved recently may not be aware of the unusual local election schedule.
Both state and local officials frequently choose to schedule elections apart from higher-level elections — and thereby make decisions that drive down turnout.
As a point of contrast, I will point back to France. On March 23rd, 2014, France had municipal elections. I do not mean to say that Paris held elections, or that Lyon held elections; I mean instead to say that the entire country of France held local elections on the city level. This was not some special occasion; in France, municipal elections happen on the same date across the entire country, once every six years.
Low turnout elections are indeed bad
Some people occasionally argue that low voter turnout isn’t a bad thing, so I’d like to quickly highlight some of the problems with low turnout.
First and foremost, when voter turnout is low, election outcomes simply don’t reflect the will of the people as well. Since consulting the will and wisdom of the people is the fundamental reason for having elections, this is a fundamental problem with low-turnout elections. Lower turnout means less representative results.
Second, special interests can have outsized impacts on low-turnout elections by mobilizing their membership and spending money. Both in terms of money and votes, special interest groups’ influence is diluted in larger elections. Low turnout elections can be easily dominated by machine politics and special interests.
As I have pointed out elsewhere, we can see a real difference in approval ratings and a strongly suggestive difference in corruption ratings based on governors’ election schedules. Governors elected in presidential years just do better than governors who are elected in midterms or off-year elections.
Special interests and corruption are closely tied. When special interests dominate politics, politics tends to become corrupt. Corrupt politicians who have the backing of key special interests but not the general public can be elected or re-elected much more easily in a low-turnout environment.