Timing of U.S. election cycles makes a big difference at local levels, BYU research shows

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(Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

PROVO, Utah (ABC4) – Timing, they say, is everything.

According to new research co-authored by Brigham Young University’s Adam Dynes, private interest groups know that better than anyone, and can capitalize on decreased interest from the American public during off-cycle elections.

“We found that when you have elections that don’t line up with national and state elections, what you see is there’s less of a relationship or correlation between the preference of the voters and the outcomes,” Dynes explains to ABC4.com “They’re much stronger when you have elections that line up with federal and state elections that are on a cycle.”

There could be a variety of reasons why this is the case, Dynes says. One factor could be that younger citizens, the majority of whom aren’t homeowners, are less likely to show up for local elections. Another contributor could be the reality that local elections don’t create the same kind of attention or spectacle found in national elections.

Reporting on smaller local issues, while potentially more impactful to the day-to-day lives of the average person, can be a strain for the media outlets that cover them. They’re also not as catchy as the events and issues that are at the forefront of Washington D.C. and state capital politics.

“Local news can report on stuff that’s happening at some level, but to cover every item that might be happening on the municipal political agenda in every municipality is not possible,” Dynes attests. “Someone’s watching the local news, some of the things happening here, happening there. There might be a big scandal or something that’s explosive but it’s a lot more of like what’s happening in the big urban centers like Salt Lake City. There’s probably a lot more attention.”

ABC4 Utah evening anchor and chief political correspondent Glen Mills agrees that politics are certainly more present in the minds of the collective public in on-cycle years.

“There’s no doubt about it in a big election year like a presidential election that issues are more front and center, and they become part of the campaign so when you get into a year like we’re having this year in the municipal election, people aren’t paying attention as much, and some of those issues can definitely start to fall down the ladder as far as priorities go,” Mills puts simply.

This year, however, with so many different issues impacting Utahns, residents are more interested in certain topics than ever, as Mills explains.

“It’s kind of different this year though because we just have so many different circumstances that are driving interest, and what’s happening politically, like the drought, obviously has water conservation top of mind. So that has become a really big topic this year on, you know, in a usual municipal election year if we didn’t have those other circumstances, it may not be such top of mind.”

Using a sophisticated system of analyzing the 1,600 biggest cities in the United State, which Dynes notes are about every city with a population greater than 20,000, the BYU professor of political science and a pair of fellow researchers from Boston College focused on several points of data and came to some interesting conclusions.

In more conservative cities, Dynes and his colleagues found that spending on public employees was greater in off-cycle election locations than in on-cycle areas. Noting that conservative areas would generally wish for smaller government, the fact that more was spent on government employees in conservative municipalities indicated that the will of the residents in the area was not being reflected in the voting results.

With a decreased interest by the public in off-cycle years, interest groups were able to swoop in and impose their agenda.

Mills, a longtime veteran of the local political scene, finds it odd that folks aren’t turning out to vote for the issues that have the more direct impact on their lifestyles.

“The crazy thing about that is it’s the local people that have more of an impact on you and your daily life, but it’s the big races that are driving the attention,” he laments.

Changes that Dynes would recommend based on his findings are that local elections become more in line with the national and gubernatorial decision-making. More than anything, however, he suggests that the average citizen take responsibility and become more involved in local issues. It’s easier and more important than some might realize.

“Show up, volunteer, there are lots of boards at the city level. Local politics is the level of government, where an individual’s participation can have the biggest impact.”

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