Portland State University study looks at mayoral elections across U.S.

PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - Phil KeislingWho cares who’s mayor?

It would appear Portland does, at least compared to 49 other cities and communities in the United States, where many recent mayoral elections yielded “abysmally low” turnout, according to a new study called Who Votes for Mayor, released by Portland State University on Thursday.

How low is low? While Portland saw a turnout of 59.4 percent in its most recent election, 2012 — between Mayor Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith — some of America’s largest cities saw a turnout of less than 15 percent in their local races. In Las Vegas, Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas, voter turnout percentage was in the single digits, the study says.

Thirty of the largest cities selected for the study were based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 population estimates, and 20 additional communities which participate in the Knight Foundation’s Community Foundations Program were added to total 50 cities studied. The Knight Foundation helped fund the project, which saw its start after former Oregon Secretary of State Phillip Keisling wrote an article for Governing Magazine in 2013 called “The Wrong Ways to Elect America’s Mayors.”

Keisling now works as director of the Center for Public Service of the Mark O. Hatfield School at Portland State University. In the article, he makes the case that holding partisan mayoral elections, coupled with voting in odd-numbered years, ensures low voter turnout and voter disenfranchisement. A friend who read the article encouraged Keisling to write to the Knight Foundation, who then funded a pilot study testing the methodology of downloading voter files and geocoding the data on a map. It analyzed four cities and was released in 2015. After seeing the results, Knight Foundation funded a deeper study.

The 50-city study looked at each place’s most recent mayoral election, which included elections spanning between 2011 and 2015.

That produced more than 23 million voting records for researchers to sift through. Though, Keisling says with that big of a number, “I’m certain there’s mistakes.”


One aspect of the study that really shocked researchers involved age.

“To me the most interesting thing was the difference between median age of people who vote and people who could vote,” Keisling says.

The median age of of people casting the ballots in local elections nationwide: 57.

“When the median age is 57 years old, it’s telling you that people in their 20s and 30s … as much as people in that generation are transforming lives, they are essentially ceding the decision making to their grandparents,” says Keisling.

In Portland, the median age at which folks are voting is lower, at 46. But residents 65 and older are still three times more likely to cast a vote than younger voters. Still, this trumps disparities in other cities analyzed, were older residents were, in some cases, 25 times more likely than younger voters to cast a vote.

Another takeaway from the study included disparities in voter turnout from neighborhood to neighborhood within the same city. The study calls these voting “oases” and “deserts.”

Southeast Portland lags behind the rest of the city in terms of turnout, and Lents is the neighborhood that Jason Jurjevich, assistant director of the Population Research Center at Portland State University, pointed to as an example where turnout was closer to 40 percent for the 2012 mayoral race.

“This relationship is consistent with existing research,” he says. “Individuals with lower levels of educational attainment and socioeconomic status turnout to vote at lower rates than their more affluent neighbors.”

Portland might be able to boast a high overall turnout, but he says “there’s still considerably low turnouts in neighborhoods east of (Interstate) 205."

The reason for these ups and downs are still being understood, but age is what they consider to be the most important factor in their particular analysis. However, socioeconomic status, income, race and ethnicity all likely also play a role, but those correlations are more difficult to prove because most voter records they have to study mainly only include information on a voter's age.

Jurjevich says only six states collect race and ethnicity information on voter forms.

Why the high turnout here?

Researchers believe Portland's higher turnout can be attributed to Oregon's election policies, like the vote-by-mail program which mails a ballot directly to all voters and that mayoral elections take place during presidential election years, when public interest is much higher.

The study found that in three-quarters of cities studied with low turnouts, mayors and other local officials are chosen in odd-number year elections as opposed to during presidential and midterm elections. The study says this is a “remnant of decisions made over a century ago when these off-year elections were set up to give voters time to focus on local issues.”

Jurjevich hopes Portland’s approach, backed by data released in this study, might cause other cities to take notice.

“There are some best practices in place in Portland that could certainly serve as a model,” says Jurjevich. Because while voting in the presidential race is important, so is voting in local-level races, researchers say.

“Local governance in many ways has a more direct influence on citizens than federal policy. So having a voice in shaping the direction of local governance could arguably be more important than national elections,” Jurjevich says. “Mayors have a strong influence in many American cities.”

There’s still what Jurjevich says is a “mountain of data” to analyze, however.

“We’re at the tip of the iceberg in terms of exploration,” he says. They plan to analyze voter turnout by race and ethnicity in the cities where that data is available.

“In the future we’ll … hopefully further our analysis by including more recent elections and perhaps even more cities,” he says.

Researchers hope this knowledge will help to strengthen democracy in America.

“This (study) points to the dimensions to those paths of civic engagement — a real wakeup call for people to be mindful,” says Keisling.

Key findings: Portland

• 0.3 percent of voting age citizens in Portland live in a voting desert

• Voters in the Portland mayoral election were 4.0 years older than voting age residents

• 88.4 percent of registered voters over the age of 65 voted, as compared to 56.7 percent of registered voters aged 18 to 34

• Voters 65 and older have 3 times greater Electoral Clout than voters aged 18-34

See all key findings and details for all cities studied at

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