Off-Cycle Elections and Public Employee Compensation

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Voting (via Wikimedia Commons)

A lot of people were interested in this Seth Masket article “How Low Voter Turnout Helps Public Employees” over in Pacific Standard Magazine (if you don’t read Masket, I suggest you do, either at Pacific Standard or at the political science blog Mischiefs of Faction). Masket points to research by UC Berkeley professor Sarah Anzia that the reason for the persistence of off-cycle elections lies  in the power of public employees unions. Off-cycle elections means that public employees make up a higher proportion of voters (because fewer voters turn out), and they elect Democrats, and so Democratic politicians continue to support off-cycle elections while providing greater compensation to public employees.

Masket wrote about this before for Mischiefs of Faction, and I think the Pacific Standard piece leaves off his vital closing paragraph there:

You could label this hypocritical, but basically, it’s just parties advocating for their constituent interests, which is as old as democracy. Voter turnout, after all, is simply a means to producing certain policy ends, and the parties will tend to push whatever rules help reach those ends.

I want to highlight that because in the wrong hands what Anzia is showing could lead to a lot of moaning about the evil public employee unions and how they’re in it for the money, and not for the service or something nonsensical like that. Getting their members good pay and benefits is a huge reason why public employee unions exist; and if anyone tells you that public employee unions are “bad” unions as opposed to the “good” private employee unions, that person simply does not support unionization of any sort, and is just looking to drive a wedge into the union movement.

The other thing is that it’s totally reasonable that public employees are more likely to turn out to vote in off-cycles; after all, they are the government, and thus are acutely aware of when government goings on happening. They are the most-informed voters. Now, that’s exactly what Progressive reformers at the turn of the 20th Century said when they advocated for off-cycles (and note that that that’s the capital “P” Progressive, as in the bipartisan Progressive Movement, which drew from both conservatives and liberals). Progressives wanted to separate local issues from the issues being debated in the national elections. However, it’s worth noting that there was another impetus for off-cycles (along with a whole host of other Progressive reforms): smashing the nascent Socialist Party which had started to gain a foothold.

We can hear echoes of the Progressive call for “informed” voters today — it was used in the debate over the master lever, Republicans and Democrats in Rhode Island often lament that voters have too strong an allegiance to the national Democratic Party and will vote for anyone marked Democrat.

The other part of the problem is that we also think of politicians as being elected to represent the interests of “all the people” they represent. But while noble, this is false, and would be a blindingly stupid electoral strategy for a politician. Politicians will represent the interests of the people who voted for them, because those are the people who will continue to vote for them — shifting to a compromise position is often bad politics because it usually fails to win over the opposition and enrages one’s own supporters; both groups are likely to seek a new candidate in the next election.

Finally, I want to make the point that off-cycles are not inherently bad. They’re only bad because of low turnout. However, there are plenty of reforms we could make that are aimed at increasing voter turnout that could blunt the negative effects of off-cycles. I think the best one is making all elections a paid holiday, because then we could instill in citizens the idea of a tradition of turning out to vote; the same way parades and fireworks are part of Independence Day, trick or treating and pumpkins are part of Halloween, and caroling and gift-giving are part of Christmas.

The problem with that is that would increase the turnout of low-income voters, who also vote Democratic, and this would have a negative effect on Republicans, and so you’re unlikely to see bipartisan support for that.

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