Exciting Elections Are the Cure for Philly's Lackluster Voter Turnout


If, like us, you're still hankering for more post-game analysis of Philly's unusually interesting 2017 municipal elections, former Econsulter Jonathan Tannen's new blog, Sixty-Six Wards, is going to be your new favorite site. 

You might recognize Tannen's byline from a series of posts he did for Econsult that we linked to this spring, calculating the effects of ballot position and other factors on judicial candidates' electoral fortunes. That analysis led to a neat real-world experiment with the Philadelphia Bar Association that could potentially give their recommendations some more electoral oomph in the future. 

Tannen now works for Facebook, but is still based in Philly, and he started the Sixty-Six Wards blog as a hobby. There's a lot of interesting poli-sci content already, and there was one finding in particular we wanted to highlight that really drives home the importance of competitive elections for improving voter turnout.

Everybody should of course vote twice a year, every year, regardless of what's on the ballot, but nobody's perfect, and people are much more likely to show up to vote if there's a competitive election. 

Primary turnout is volatile. Every time a race has a competitive democratic primary, turnout surges. President, Mayor, and Governor all show clear incumbent valleys. It appears voters actually behave quite rationally: when races aren't competitive they spend their days doing other things. (Of course, this could also be a function of a lack of awareness and no get-out-the-vote in non-competitive years).

This year saw a competitive D.A.'s primary and a general election that was closer than usual. Still, 2017's turnout, in both plots, represents larger swings than any D.A. swings we've recently seen. Something is fundamentally different.
This is a pretty banal finding, but it matters because it suggests that if we want more people to vote in our local elections, and we know that voters respond well to competition, then the best way to get more voters to participate in our local democracy is to do more things to encourage competitive elections.

At the municipal level, that could mean City Council term limits, some type of public financing for campaigns, ending Resign-to-Run, instituting Ranked Choice voting, moving from calendar limits to election cycle limits for campaign donations, or even more radical Charter changes like increasing the number of City Council seats, and shrinking the size of the districts. 
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