By: Joshua Wagner
Almost everyone agrees that low voter turnout is a serious problem throughout the country. The trouble is that liberals and conservatives often disagree about the best way for the states to address this issue. However, there is at least one proposed solution which has garnered bipartisan support (and bipartisan opposition) from state lawmakers: election day consolidation.
In theory, one reason for depressed voter turnout is the division of elections for different offices at the state and local level into separate contests held on different days. It is widely recognized that turnout for elections decreases as the stakes of the contests themselves decrease, which is why midterm congressional elections attract vastly fewer voters than presidential elections. Similarly, local and municipal elections for school board and city council positions tend to attract less interest than statewide elections. Proponents of election day consolidation argue that requiring localities to schedule their local elections on the same days as statewide elections will have the effect of increasing voter turnout across the board.
In Tennessee, this idea gained some traction when HB2265 was introduced to the state house by Republican Rep. Cameron Sexton in 2018. If passed, the bill would require certain cities to change their election dates to coincide with the “regular” elections held in August or November of even-numbered years. Tennessee is consistently among the lowest-ranked states for voter turnout in the country, a trend which has continued through the 2016 and 2018 election cycles. Although the bill received support early on, it was ultimately submitted to the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) for review in March of 2018. TACIR is an intergovernmental organization comprised state and local officials which provides research for the purpose of improving government function in Tennessee. The Commission finally released its report in September of 2019 in which it recommended against passage of HB2265. The report cites concerns about election consolidation creating “long, complicated, and confusing” ballots, “especially in more highly populated areas.” The report suggests that while consolidating elections may save the state money, it does not necessarily increase interest in local issues. “When elections are consolidated, ballots include more races and initiatives, resulting in longer ballots and potentially more drop-of.” The TACIR report ultimately concludes that the risk of this kind of “ballot fatigue” outweighs any potential turnout benefits resulting from election day consolidation. Both TACIR and the Tennessee state legislature are Republican-controlled.
However, evidence from other states directly contradicts these findings. A study prepared for the 2019 Election Sciences, Reform, & Administration Conference found that efforts to consolidate certain municipal elections with statewide elections in California increased voter turnout in midterm elections by three to five percent. The study found a measurable difference in overall turnout between cities that consolidated their elections by 2018 and those that still held separate elections. The report concluded that “the evidence seems to imply that the mere presence of an additional contest on the ballot is enough to boost turnout.” However, the results of the study are “tentative” and highly localized. Experts remain divided on the root causes and best solutions for low turnout.
After TACIR released its critical report on HB2265, Rep. Sexton, who became Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives in August of 2019, has said that he agrees with the Commission’s findings. However, he has not indicated whether he will continue to push for the bill’s passage in the upcoming legislative session.