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Want fewer interest groups influencing local government? Vote in off-cycle elections, BYU study says

Primary ballots are organized at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 2, 2020.

Primary ballots are organized at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 2, 2020. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

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PROVO — If you want interest groups to have less power over politicians, you should vote in off-cycle elections, a new study from Brigham Young University suggests.

The study, published in the American Political Science Review, suggests that governments voted into power during off-cycle elections are more responsive to lobbying and interest groups, especially when those interest groups oppose the interests of the average voter. Off-cycle elections refer to local elections without a legislative, national congressional or presidential race on the ballot.

The study looked at 1,600 United States cities with populations above 20,000 — including multiple cities in Utah — and compared the preferences of voters in each city to city spending habits after elections. The researchers assumed, in accordance with other political science research, that conservative cities would spend less money on public employees and liberal cities would spend more.

The study used public employee data because it was readily available in the 2021 U.S. Census records, and because public employees reliably organize regardless of a city's political leanings. Private data is not as easily available, but the same relationship likely applies to lobbying and other interest groups, the research suggests.

Looking at spending per capita on salaries for public employees, BYU political science professor Adam Dynes — a co-author on the paper — noticed something interesting.

"Conservative cities that hold elections off-cycle are spending twice as much per capita on salaries to employees than similarly conservative cities that have elections on cycle," Dynes explained.

"What this suggests is that interest groups are better able to get what they want out of local governments when those elections are held off-cycle," Dynes explained.

While one would guess that increased interest group influence would mean liberal cities spend even more money, the opposite is true, Dynes says. Liberal cities spend substantially less on public employee salaries after off-cycle elections.

The difference, Dynes says, comes because more reliable voters in off-cycle elections tend to be older and more conservative, while younger and more liberal voters don't often turn up.

"When you have off-cycle elections, turnout diminishes quite a bit," Dynes noted. "It's not uncommon for a quarter or less than a quarter of eligible voters to show up."

In short, conservative and liberal cities both spend tax money in ways less in line with their political leanings during off-cycle elections. The finding is important as more than 75% of U.S. cities use off-cycle elections, Dynes said.

Solutions — one of which Utah has already implemented

If elections are aiming to reflect the will of the median voter, then the results of the study are an argument for changing election timing, Dynes said. But it's more complicated than that.

"You know, one of the concerns and sometimes why people push for off-cycle elections is, a long time ago back in the day when a lot of this was decided in most places, was because they were worried about the masses showing up," Dynes explained. "They're showing up to vote on the national elections, but they're not really that informed about what's happening at the local level. So there's this concern that you know are they concerned about voters not informed about local policies and politics showing up and then influencing the outcome."

"If you're worried about interest groups having undue influence, whether that's developers and business interests, public employees, whatever it might be, whichever group, well then, you've got to show up to vote," Dynes said.

On the subject of local government, Dynes said, "It's the level of government where I think people have a big impact, and it's the level of government that people interact with, I think, kind of the most in their day-to-day lives." He mentioned school board decisions, fireworks regulations in July, water services and park maintenance.

"I'm in Provo," Dynes said of his local politics. "We have over 100,000 people, but (you're) usually just a few people away in your network from a city councilor or people working on these different boards — and they're responsive when you call and email."

Beyond changing election timing or voting in-person, Dynes said that there's one other solution — one that Utah has already put into place.

The study uses data from 2012 and 2016. Since then, multiple states, including Utah, have implemented voting by mail.

"So, before they did that, turnout in Provo for example is, like, 10% or lower. But now, it's more like 30%," Dynes noted. "That might help to decrease that effect of having off-cycle election — easing the ability of people to vote."

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