In the United States, local elections in odd numbered years have lower turnouts. School boards in general have the lowest turnouts.

For example, there was a nonpartisan school board election in a highly populated Maryland county where only 3% of eligible voters voted.

I have seen similar effects for mayoral elections. Though the turnouts are low in general they tend to be even lower for ones without ballot listed political affiliations.

This seems related to the fact that they are non partisan elections, and therefore partisans feel that there is nobody/nothing for them to vote for or vote against. US presidential elections by comparison usually draw 55% turnouts and midterms 45% turnouts.

Do non partisan elections generally draw fewer voters because they are non partisan?

  • 5
    You've perhaps overlooked an alternative: that nonpartisan elections (and nonpartisan offices in general elections) tend to be more technical positions. Where's the partisanship in who gets elected county clerk, for instance? Some, such as judges (where they're elected) are even ethically forbidden from most partisan campaigning.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 3, 2021 at 17:03
  • @jamesqf What does "ethically forbidden" mean?
    – gerrit
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 14:48
  • @gerrit Any prohibited actions with ethics being the cause of prohibition - uscourts.gov/judges-judgeships/… - ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0026/17594/…
    – TCooper
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 14:58
  • @gerrit: Or this uscourts.gov/judges-judgeships/… Basically judges are supposed to be, or at least present the appearance of being, above partisan politics.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 16:25

1 Answer 1


This effect has been fairly well researched, for example by Schaffner, Streb, & Wright in their 2001 paper Teams Without Uniforms: The Nonpartisan Ballot in State and Local Elections in Political Research Quarterly. They examine a number of US elections, including those in the city of Asheville, North Carolina as it switched from partisan to nonpartisan elections in the 1990s, and state legislative elections in Minnesota as they changed from nonpartisan to partisan in the 1990s; finding that "nonpartisanship depresses turnout and that in nonpartisan contests voters rely less on party and more on incumbency in their voting decisions".

Their hypothesis is that the presence of party identification on the ballot grants less informed voters a shortcut for making an educated vote; this, combined with the fact that candidate's positions are less likely to be widely publicized in elections with relatively low profiles compared to nation-wide elections, means that voters must invest more time and effort into determining differences between candidates in nonpartisan elections.

In order to investigate this, they look at areas in which both partisan and nonpartisan elections took place at the same time, but also looked at localities that switched from a partisan to a nonpartisan ballot.

In the table below, two analyses are shown. In Analysis 1, the difference between turnout in two towns in the same House district and the turnouts in their Mayoral elections are shown. Urbana used a partisan ballot, while Champaign used a nonpartisan ballot. The results show that drop in turnout in the mayoral election was 10 points higher in the town using a nonpartisan ballot than that with a partisan ballot - supporting the hypothesis.

On the other hand, Analysis 2 shows the turnout numbers for the mayoral election in Asheville, which switched from a partisan ballot to a nonpartisan ballot between the 1993 and 1995 elections. There is no significant drop in turnout - one explanation suggested by the authors is that the candidates running for mayor were familiar faces; one was the incumbent mayor while one was the vice-mayor, so the electorate was already fairly informed, and the effort needed to cast an informed vote was lower.

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More convincingly, perhaps, the paper then looks at the difference in turnout between partisan and nonpartisan elections on the same ballot; the table below shows in Analysis 1 the difference between turnout in the elections for the House of Representatives and State Senate in Kansas, which used a partisan ballot for both races, and Nebraska, which used a nonpartisan ballot for the State Senate. Despite voters already having invested effort to turn up and vote, significantly fewer chose to cast a vote in the nonpartisan ballot. A similar effect was noted in Analysis 2, although not to quite the same extent.

enter image description here

They conclude:

The analysis of mayoral and state Senate elections has produced strong confirmation for two hypotheses (and weaker support for a third) about nonpartisan elections: in some cases participation is pushed down and in all cases voting is affected less by partisanship and more by incumbency. Removing party from the ballot takes away or weakens partisan considerations from voters' decisions, both in situations where campaign activists do not reinsert partisanship and in those where the partisanship of the candidate is more obvious (such as in Minnesota). In addition, we find, consistent with the views of voters as cognitive misers, that without partisan cues voters rely on the next most obvious low cost voting cue - incumbency - which represents some combination of candidate name familiarity, less uncertainty about the candidate, and satisfactions with performance in office.

  • I love these hard hitting to the point facts! Maybe add more recent information as well since the US changed a lot since then? Commented Aug 3, 2021 at 18:34
  • In addition to this (or perhaps contributing to this): a partisan election means the candidate has the resources of the local party organization behind them. In a non-partisan election, each candidate has to do their own fundraising, recruit their own volunteers, etc. That means more overhead and less money for advertisements, voter turnout efforts, etc.
    – bta
    Commented Aug 3, 2021 at 21:01
  • "party identification on the ballot grants less informed voters a shortcut for making an educated vote" That seems fairly ridiculous hypothesis: It gives less informed voters a shortcut for making a decision on who to vote for, but not for making an educated decision. (A typical "less educated voter" decision in the UK: "I vote for party X because my parents and grandparents voted for party X")
    – alephzero
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 11:13
  • @alephzero yeah I take your point - I was paraphrasing a bit, the actual words from the paper are that party labels "convey generally accurate policy information about candidates and their low cost and accessibility help voters to reach reasonable decisions", but they do go on to use the term "educated vote" in their hypotheses.
    – CDJB
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 11:21

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