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You would expect that elections which affect people more have greater participation rates and command more attention, relatively speaking, to the people they affect. However, city council elections, state governor elections, Congress races, and Senate runoffs tend to have lower turnout than the presidential election.

We've been drilled for years about the importance of local elections and their influence being greater than that of federal ones, so what explains this? Influence is defined as the power that the holder of the position has on their constituents through the decisions they make and the procedures they are allowed. For example, the president may pardon people, enact travel bans, or send armed forces without Congressional approval for up to 60 days. The state governor may enact legislation and allocate budgets for education or infrastructure working with the state senate, appoint local judges, and command the National Guard within the state.

Some responsibilities at the state or smaller level that voters overlook: interpret Supreme Court decisions (even before recent events, states wildly varied in what kinds of abortions were allowed), decide spending on education (there's federal funding and regulations, but what gets taught and how the money is spread out is almost entirely a state matter), regulate interstate travel and commerce (roads, permits for businesses, local taxes etc.), organize police and emergency servies, and decide zoning for housing.

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    The meaning of influence is ambiguous here: Local elections probably have more direct influence on the voters, but the representative elected in these elections actually have less power/influence, and hence less ability to affect people's lives, than, e.g., the president. May 23, 2022 at 8:57
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    Because in America, politics is yet another branch of the entertainment industry. Local elections are boring.
    – Nacht
    May 23, 2022 at 11:05
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    This isn't a US-specific phenomenon. Local elections in the UK also typically have much lower turnouts than national elections. May 23, 2022 at 12:56
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    By "the general election," do you mean the general election for President? All of the positions mentioned in the question would also have general elections, which just means the main one in which the final selection for the office is supposed to be made (except in cases where a run-off is required.)
    – reirab
    May 23, 2022 at 14:11
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    Media coverage explains this very well. You have to go out of your way just to find out when the small elections take place, never mind what will be on the ballot.
    – user2578
    May 23, 2022 at 15:03

6 Answers 6

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Because local elections are about policy, national elections are about identity.

I don't know how those stand in terms of people's priorities, but one sure is a whole lot easier to parse than the other. "What sort of tax incentives structured over what time frame should the city council use to encourage revitalization of the downtown area" is something that I would venture to say most citizens are completely unqualified to fully understand, and commensurately fewer have a firm opinion about. I'm certainly not, and don't.

Whereas "the Bad Orange Man is a huge jerk/Donald Trump is for Real Americans" is something everybody has an opinion about, and divides people very neatly along the lines of identity politics. It's not just opinions about the former and perhaps future President Trump, it's that those opinions reliably cluster with a bunch of other ones. I should not be able to predict your opinion on school vouchers from your opinion on gun control, but I usually can.

Local candidates tend to be more mixed, i.e. less likely to fit stereotypical positions. They typically aren't famous, even a lot of their constituents don't know who they are. You can't as easily use "Joe Blow, State Representative" as a function from people => add revenue, so no one puts in the effort to rile up the electorate.

Note that when a local issue is comparatively easy to understand it tends to get traction: should we build this industrial park right next to this residential area tends to get a lot of traction where I live: "jobs!" vs "traffic and noise!" etc.

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Because those elections get almost no coverage and unless people are paying attention it can be easy to miss them. The presidential elections get years of coverage so everyone knows when they are happening and it drives up turnout. Off year elections get less coverage and the turnout drops. Outside of that coverage drops even more which impacts turnout a lot.

Another point that was brought up in the comments(thanks JonathanReez) is that local level politicians can have an incentive to keep turnout smaller as it is easier to win over a smaller group

As a note there was only 66.8% turnout in the 2020 presidential election and voter turnout is low in general in the US

https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2021/2020-presidential-election-voting-and-registration-tables-now-available.html

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    A friend is registered to vote in the US for 8 years, and has yet to hear about any election they could vote in (outside of federal). In other words, yes, there is no mechanism that informs people about local elections; you'd have to actively search for info every week of so.
    – Aganju
    May 24, 2022 at 3:09
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    @Aganju you don't need to actively search for it, but you do need to be active in your local community. Every local election I've seen has been covered by a local paper. My local subreddit on reddit also has coverage of every election, usually with a link to an easily digestible run-down of the candidates written by a local paper. I see candidate signs all along my drive indicating that, at least, an election is coming up soon. You'd have to be a total recluse to not find out about the elections through passive means. Admittedly, every local area is different. May 24, 2022 at 13:38
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    @DavidJacobsen Not every town/village has a local paper or local news station. While they might have some form of local news they might not always be easy to find. As for the internet options some of the smaller areas might not have those as well.
    – Joe W
    May 24, 2022 at 13:51
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    Additionally local politicians do their best to avoid making local elections too prominent. The smaller the turnout, the easier it is to manipulate votes effectively. May 24, 2022 at 18:22
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    @Aganju what county/state does your friend live in. I live in California, and every county sends sample ballots (not to be confused with a "mail-in ballot") for every election along with a listing of the ballot propositions and candidates, in a newspaper-print booklet. I'd be shocked to learn that's not the case in every other state, but perhaps I'm naïve and spoiled here.
    – David
    May 24, 2022 at 22:41
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Frankly, I think the answer is that many, if not most, people would simply disagree with the assertion that state and local elections are more influential than federal ones or that Congressional elections are more influential than the Presidential ones.

Federal vs. State/Local

In particular, state or local laws cannot be enforced if they would violate federal ones, so, if a matter is decided at the federal level, then your state and local politicians are powerless to do anything about it (other than, of course, voting and encouraging people to vote in the federal elections.) In particular, Article VI, paragraph 2 of the U.S. Constitution (commonly known as the Supremacy Clause) states that:

This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.

Presidential vs. Congressional Elections

As for why people tend to be more likely to turn out to vote during a Presidential election than in a mid-term election (i.e. a federal congressional election during years where the Presidency is not on the ballot,) there are a few reasons for this.

Power of the Presidency

Power Over New Legislation

One reason is that the Presidency concentrates far more power into one individual than any other position at any level of government in the United States. While the President cannot technically make laws on their own, their assent is required for any new laws to be made by Congress unless 2/3 of each house of Congress votes to override the President's veto. In practice, that almost never happens, so the President's consent is required for virtually any legislation to pass. That is, even if you can get just under two out of three members of each house of Congress to agree on a law, if the President does not agree, Congress cannot pass that law.

Executive/Regulatory Authority

Additionally, there are many existing federal laws which grant a large degree of discretion to executive branch agencies. Within the (often very wide) bounds of those laws, the President can unilaterally issue Executive Orders. This includes things all the way up to deploying the U.S. military for up to 60 days under the War Powers Act, for example. But it also includes the power to shape the absolutely vast Code of Federal Regulations within the bounds of the laws authorizing regulatory agencies. According to the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, as of 2013, there were 235 entire books of federal regulations with an average length of approximately 750 pages each. They put together this interesting infographic comparing the word count in the Code of Federal Regulations in 2013 to various (entire series of) books:

Code of Federal Regulations Infographic
Code of Federal Regulations - Image Source: Mercatus Center, George Mason University

At 103 million words as GMU's work in 2013, the CFR was approximately 218 times as long as the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy or 130 times as long as the Bible. (And the imagery isn't nearly as good as Tolkien's...)

If the President decides to direct federal agencies in a particular manner, then, as long as its within the bounds of the laws that create the authority of those agencies, there's nothing even your U.S. Representative or Senator can do to stop them unless they have 2/3 of both Representatives and Senators willing to pass a new law.

Power of Appointments

The President has the sole power to nominate the entire Cabinet (i.e. heads of the various executive branch departments) as well as all federal judges. These and a few other positions (e.g. members of the Federal Reserve Board) must be confirmed by the Senate in order to take office, but the President is the only one who can nominate them and the Senate can only agree or disagree to the appointment. Additionally, there are lots of less-important executive branch positions that the President can just appoint directly without any need for confirmation by the Senate.

So, while the House and Senate do indeed have considerable power, an individual member of the House or Senate doesn't wield nearly the power of the President.

Uncompetitive Congressional Elections

Additionally, many House and Senate races aren't nearly as competitive as the race for President.

Thanks in part to major natural regional differences in prevailing political views (e.g. inner city vs. suburban vs. rural) and in part to gerrymandering, many House seats really aren't competitive in the general election at all. For example, in my district, the candidate from the more popular party here has received more than 2/3 of the votes in the last 6 consecutive elections (i.e. since 2010.) When the winner of a race is a complete foregone conclusion, people won't be as motivated to vote.

While Senate seats can't be gerrymandered (because they are statewide elections,) many of those races still end up being quite uncompetitive due to many, if not most, states having a very significant bias in favor of one major party or the other.

While there are some House and Senate elections that are extremely competitive, overall turnout in mid-terms tends to be reduced by lower turnout in the districts without a competitive race on the ballot.

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    Senate seats cannot be gerrymandered; they come with the gerrymandering built in!
    – Obie 2.0
    May 23, 2022 at 17:49
  • You raise a good point, so I added decisions mostly decided at the state or lower level to my question. May 25, 2022 at 23:14
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    @Displayname Yeah, it's not that state and local elections aren't important, it's just that most people (frankly, quite reasonably) view them as less important than federal ones and, especially, President. Also, states don't really get to "interpret" Supreme Court decisions. "states wildly varied in what kinds of abortions were allowed" also isn't really true. Abortion is allowed for any reason in any state at any stage in pregnancy until the Supreme Court overturns Roe. Where states differ is in qualifications required for people performing the procedure and such.
    – reirab
    May 26, 2022 at 0:12
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    @reirab What about the ban on abortion past 6 weeks in Texas? I don't get how all the restrictions obey "allowed for any reason in any state at any stage." May 26, 2022 at 3:22
  • @Displayname That one is odd. Technically, it isn't a ban in the sense of making it an offense against the government (either civil or criminal.) It's a cause of action allowing private citizens to sue. The part of the Constitution on which Roe claimed to be based (like most of it) does not restrict the actions of private citizens, only of the government, so it technically doesn't directly violate Roe, even though it obviously goes against the spirit of it. It will be interesting to see how court cases there turn out, though it may end up being dismissed as moot if Roe gets overturned first.
    – reirab
    May 26, 2022 at 7:56
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There are two different components of influence here. The local government may have a lot more influence on your daily life than the federal government. But the different between having person A or person B heading your local government is usually very small. Even if these people have very different political views they have very limited power to change things. On the federal level, the country as a whole could move in quite distinct directions depending on who is in charge at the top.

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    I would disagree on that point and they can have a much bigger influence on what happens
    – Joe W
    May 23, 2022 at 12:25
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    This is factually wrong, and the Democrats' inability to grasp this and communicate it to their base is a big reason why you've got the current situation. Case in point: Several GOP-led states are actively pushing state-level legislation to override the electorate if they feel that the outcome of the vote was incorrect (meaning "the democrat won and we don't want to admit it"). May 24, 2022 at 5:05
  • @Shadur Well, yes and no. I think quarague was thinking smaller than that. School boards have suddenly become a big thing, but typically those positions have little to no actual power and the board is largely just doing paperwork devoid of discretionary actions. Because the bigger government, the state government you point to, that holds all the legislative power, is the one that arranges it so. How much power do truly local government officials, like mayors and city treasurers and board members, actually have in practice? May 24, 2022 at 10:18
  • @zibadawatimmy Mayors and county commission/city council/whatever-your-state-calls-them have a pretty substantial amount of power, including determining local taxes, setting local government budgets, etc. School boards, much less so. It still tends to be less power than state and federal officials, though... especially since the local governments exist only to the extent that the state government says they do.
    – reirab
    May 24, 2022 at 15:18
  • @zibadawatimmy The school board has a disproportionate amount of say in what gets actually taught. If you think that doesn't add up, you haven't been paying attention. May 24, 2022 at 16:17
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Media

Both Mass Media and Social Media in the USA are national/international stages. Talking about the most powerful individual (president) gets more eyeballs and is easier than talking about many weaker individuals (local councilmembers), even if those local councilmembers have more power collectively.

The market for covering what your local councilmembers (or mayor, or even state representative or governor) is small. So mass media makes less money per effort put into covering them, and social media has fewer people providing less content and it is less likely a random peer they have will also be interested in it.

In essence, covering a politician and politics is a cost, and the payoff comes from the audience. The bigger the politician's individual scale, the higher the payoff for a quite similar cost.

This is also why we rarely see 'fringe' parties focusing on local elections, even if they are easier to win; by going national, their return on investment (visibility of their position per unit cost) is much lower than by going local.

You'll still get some media coverage (both social and mass) of local officials, and every party (even fringe ones) puts some effort into local politics. But there is a lot of bang for your buck by going national.

For consumers of political media, often they end up voting locally based off of national issues! Finding media about local politics is harder than finding national media. So, people use the national party as a short cut. This reinforces the above issue; as people are using the national media (social and mass) as a proxy for information about local politicians, investing locally gets even less return.

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Power is where you believe it is, meaning that a lot of people have so little faith in the influence of their local government that they don't bother to vote because the e things that are truly important to most people aren't decided on a local level

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