Democracy in America?

Fernando Fernandez-Monge

By Fernando Fernandez-Monge, on April 13th, 2018

> Read Fernando Fernandez-Monge's articles

One of the first, and definitely most famous, observers of American democratic institutions saw in local government one of the key pillars to the newly established democratic system. Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed by New England townships’ degree of self-government. Today, almost two centuries after Tocqueville’s essay was published, it may be time to conclude that American local democracy, if not dead, is severely wounded.

Low voting turnout at local elections

Last November Bill de Blasio was re-elected as the Mayor of New York (US) with the support of little more than 14% of the city’s registered voters. Such low support was enough for de Blasio to win, because only 21.7% of the city’s 5 million registered voters decided to vote. This may seem surprising, but is actually not unusual at all. A study looking at 144 large US cities and 340 separate mayoral elections calculated a mean participation of 25.8%, and other studies find even lower turnout rates.

European countries perform substantially better than the US in local election turnout, but they should not claim victory too soon. Europe is not immune to a generalized fall in public trust in government, with many countries showing lower levels than the US. While some local governments – particularly in Nordic countries – have a long history of devolution and strong governments, other localities are also facing the erosion to legitimacy seen at the national level. In fact, it is in local governments where the limits of electoral participation have given rise to interesting models of direct participatory and deliberative democracy, enhanced by the use of digital tools, as previous URBACT articles have explained.


Despite these additions to the “democratic toolbox” of local governments, the pitfalls of representative institutions can become a real hindrance to the building of inclusive societies. It would be wise for European local governments to look at the reasons and consequences of low voting turnout in US counterparts, before it is too late.

Reasons behind low voting turnout at local elections in the US

But, why are US local election turnout numbers so incredibly low?

Some of the reasons have to do with the institutional design of US local elections, such as the council-manager form of government or cumbersome processes. Timing also matters. Local elections that coincide with national level elections have higher participation rates, a pattern also present in countries like the UK or Germany. One of the reasons for this is that local elections do not get the media attention that other elections attract, so in the absence of higher profile elections, voters lack the necessary information and stimulation to get out to vote.

Given this low information intensity, incumbents have an important edge over challengers, who have a hard time explaining to voters why it is so important for them to participate in the election. Also, despite the often praised pragmatism of mayors, elections with less clear cut ideological divisions mobilize fewer people. All this results in lower turnout when incumbent mayors are running for election or when elections are non-partisan.

Sometimes, institutional designs are the result of strategies by the incumbent governing coalition to reduce electoral competition, but in other cases derive from the reformist era that tried to tackle corruption and patronage in US cities early in the twentieth century. Reformers in the US “implemented changes to the electoral structure, which effectively disenfranchised portions of the population, particularly low income and minority residents, in the name of more efficiently functioning cities”.

Impact of Urban Inequalities

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????These uneven participation rates continue today, deeply impacting urban inequality. A report by the University of Portland State of voting turnout in 50 cities, including the 30 most populous, found that participation rates differ greatly among race, class and age groups. Minorities, lower income and younger votes tended to vote less on average, and their lack of electoral participation disenfranchise them even further. Uneven turnout by these groups results in less welfare and redistributive policies favourable to these “non-voting” groups.

This, of course, creates a vicious cycle. Certain groups do not vote because they think their vote does not count. In turn, governing elites do not have incentives to respond to their needs, fulfilling these voters’ worst suspicions. These governing coalitions may even go further, stacking the deck in their favour through what Jessica Trounstine calls bias. She describes three types of bias: information bias (media ownership, non-partisan elections, etc.), voter bias (bribery, candidate requirements, registration requirements, etc.) and seat bias (gerrymandering, annexation or de-annexation of neighbourhoods, etc.).

Interestingly, this aspect of US cities’ low turnout is seldom mentioned by important urban experts, and yet it can explain some of the paradoxes they find. For example, in his latest book, Richard Florida points to the irony that the most unequal and segregated cities in the US are usually also those with a liberal mayor. Since Democrats have usually been in power for a long time in these cities, pro-redistribution policies implemented by these local governments should have tackled these inequalities. Maybe they are less progressive than their title would suggest – or perhaps they are just responding to the few they voted them.

Of course, there are other factors affecting local governments’ ability to tackle inequality, such as US cities’ legal constraints. Others like Ed Glaeser would argue that inequality is an indicator of cities’ attractiveness for lower income people due to their economic opportunities. Yet, it is also clear that simple ideological policy-making cannot explain this paradox, and that the power dynamics and associated policy outcomes of municipal governing coalitions need to be analysed with a much sharper scalpel, one that pays close attention to voting patterns and biasing strategies.

This appeal to the political economy of city government also contrasts with the optimism about local government of authors like Benjamin Barber, or more recently, the concept of New Localism coined by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak. Cities are certainly problem-solving oriented governments, and in many cases are the locus of innovation against slow and politicized national governments. But too often these approaches are mostly focused on “growing the pie” rather than on “how the pie is divided”. In other words, who benefits from these innovations and economic growth depends a great deal on who has voice (either through voting or other direct participatory mechanism). Without voice, the New Localism can end up becoming the “Localism of the Few”.

Government of the people, by the people and for the people

For Tocqueville, equality among Americans was an essential societal ingredient of the, at that time novel, democratic system. At the same time, he also saw in the laws of democracy a natural tendency to favour the interest of the majority of the people and prevent the concentration of power and richness among a small few. When this positive interaction between equality and democracy is broken by the alteration of rules and institutions, the virtuous cycle can easily become in a downward spiral.

For all the talk about inequality, in cities and beyond, the link between democracy and material equality is seldom mentioned. And yet it will be difficult to achieve an inclusive society if the voices of everyone, and not just a few, are not heard – and felt – by political decision makers. It may be time for those who talk about the new urban crisis, to look back in history for fixes in the democratic institutions that once created the government of the people, by the people and for the people.


An earlier version of this post was published in Agenda Publica.


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