Older voters outmuscle younger ones in election clout

Study at Portland State University examined recent mayoral elections in 50 U.S. cities.

With early voting underway in a presidential election that has seemed to last forever, it’s worth remembering local elections are also on the ballot, even if they draw far less attention. And in Charlotte’s recent local election, 2015, older voters punched far above their weight. 

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In fact, Charlotte voters age 65 and older had 16 times the electoral clout of voters 18 to 34 in the 2015 mayoral election, according to researchers in Oregon. That’s because they were 16 times more likely to cast a ballot.

The researchers at Portland State University studied 2015 mayoral elections in the nation’s 30 largest cities, including Charlotte.  Some of their findings:

Charlotte turnout, 15.9 percent, ranked No. 19 of 30 and was below the median of 20 percent – higher for example than New York City (14 percent) and Austin (13 percent), but lagging Houston (18 percent), Jacksonville (31 percent), Nashville (24 percent) and Portland (59 percent). See the full list of turnout for 50 cities.

CHARLOTTE

The median age of Charlotte’s voters in the last election was 57, compared with the overall population’s median age of 42. 

Click image to download 2-page report

Among registered voters, those 65 and older had a 36.1 percent turnout compared with 4.3 percent for voters 18 to 34.

NATIONAL

Across the nation, the researchers say, “Turnout is abysmally low.”  In 10 of the 30 largest cities turnout was less than 15 percent. In Las Vegas, Dallas and Fort Worth the percentage of voters who showed up was in the single digits. And the median age was 57, with residents 65 and older 15 times more likely to vote in mayoral elections than voters 18 to 34.

Charlotte was the only N.C. city the researchers studied, but they looked at voting data for Columbia and Myrtle Beach, S.C.  Some highlights:

COLUMBIA:

  • 14 percent of voting age citizens voted in the last mayoral election.
  • Among registered voters 65 and older, 50 percent voted, compared to 6 percent of those ages 18 to 34.  Voters 65 and older had 25 times the electoral clout of those 18-34.

MYRTLE BEACH:

  • 13 percent of voting age citizens voted in the last mayoral election.
  • Among registered voters, 31 percent of those 65 and older voted but only 3.6 percent of those 18-34.

In Charlotte and many other N.C. communities mayoral and municipal elections are not on the ballot in even-numbered years, so they don’t coincide with elections for president, U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, governor, and other state offices. The researchers note that pattern may hold down voter participation.

Holding off-year municipal elections is common in the U.S. Of the 50 largest U.S. cities more than three-quarters hold mayoral elections in odd-numbered years, the researchers note. Many of those cities set their election dates over a century ago, during the Progressive era, when "off year" contests were seen as giving voters more of a chance to focus on municipal-level issues (and in some cases, pay more attention to rooting out corrupt local officials).

Mecklenburg County commissioner elections are on even-numbered years, every two years.

The researchers note:

“Low voter turnout is already common in midterm national elections, and it has long been known that such elections are highly skewed toward more affluent, highly educated, and largely white, non-Hispanic voters. In general, voter turnout is far lower still – if not downright abysmal – in local and mayoral elections. Better understanding the full extent of how these elections are skewed has potentially important implications for how city residents view their local elected officials, and how local officials view different constituencies and geographies within these cities

“Research shows that the political power exercised by certain citizens and groups correlates significantly with voting behavior. To the extent that especially low turnout translates into inadequate or low quality public services, unfair treatment, and poorer outcomes for certain city residents (e.g., minorities and/or low income residents), this makes voting behavior also a social justice issue.”

The study is funded by the Foundation, and follows on a 2015 pilot study of four cities: Charlotte, Detroit, Portland (Ore.) and St. Paul.  Leading the research team for the project are Jason Jurjevich, Ph.D., who received his master’s degree in Geography from UNC Charlotte; Phil Keisling, formerly the elected secretary of state for Oregon who is director of the Portland State University’s Center for Public Service.