From the Field

Teacher Unions and the Influence of Special Interests in Local Elections

Some of the most important education decisions in America are made by officials chosen in local elections, where voter turnout is typically low. What are the consequences of that? Are there ways to make local elections more democratic, to ensure more voters are heard? Marc Porter Magee of 50CAN talks about that challenge with Sarah Anzia, the Michelle J. Schwartz Associate Professor of Public Policy and Associate Professor of Political Science at University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Timing and Turnout: How Off-Cycle Elections Favor Organized Groups.

Porter Magee: What got you interested in this question of the role of organized groups in local elections?

Anzia: I was inspired by a couple of different experiences very early in my career. When I was a master’s student at the University of Chicago, I worked as a research assistant for a political scientist named Chris Berry who was writing a book on special districts, which are special-purpose entities independent of other local governments. This is, for example, the way fire protection is funded in some places. They have elections and the power to tax. But when you start looking into the elections for these special districts, you realize that most people don’t even know they are happening or even that they have a choice over the decisions that are being made.

Shortly after that, I started my Ph.D. at Stanford, and I was working with Terry Moe, and he has done a lot of work looking at school board elections and teacher unions. That deepened my interest in local elections, the weird ways in which they are set up, and the organized groups that actively try to influence them. I started with a really basic question: Who benefits from elections that most people aren’t paying attention to and don’t show up to vote in?

And what did you find?

When elections are held in off years or on unusual days, the people who do show up are the ones who really care about the outcomes, and usually this means that well-organized groups are overrepresented. Oftentimes, in local government, it means that government employees and their unions have outsized influence. It makes sense that they would be really politically engaged, because what these local governments do affects their jobs very directly.

So especially when elections are off-cycle, firefighters have disproportionate influence in the elections of fire protection districts and cities, and teachers unions have disproportionate influence in school board elections. And that perhaps would surprise most people. If I were to say, “The Chambers of Commerce, the realtors and the developers are really active in local politics.” You might say, “That’s obvious.” But people might not realize that firefighters are some of the most active groups in local politics, in many states.

The result is that a relatively small number of people have outsized influence on, for example, how well local government employees are compensated—and that compensation makes up a large share of local government budgets. But, of course, everyone ends up paying as taxpayers whether they knew about the election or not.

Have organized groups always played around with the timing of local elections to maximize their influence?

Toying with the timing of elections goes back to the 1840s, so this is a very old phenomenon. In big cities, it was political parties that were the driving force behind the timing of elections. They figured out whether they would do better in an election in even-numbered or odd-numbered years and would then change the election calendar to boost their chances of winning. And you can track how the election dates were moved back and forth depending on who was in power.

We often hear people bemoaning America’s low levels of turnout for elections, but it sounds like we don’t talk enough about how that is often by design. That is, powerful people decided they could maintain their power by creating an election schedule that discouraged voting.

That’s right. Most elections that happen in this country are low-participation affairs, and this is not an accident. This is the system that somebody somewhere wants.

If you’re an interest group, you know that new elections could potentially push policymakers away from your interests. Election timing is a way to avoid that. Holding off-cycle elections—for example a school board election that takes place in the Spring—is a way to put a limit on the number of people who will participate and to affect the kinds of people who participate. So some interest groups work behind the scenes to reinforce the structures that encourage low-turnout elections.

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If our goal was to increase turnout for elections, the easiest switch to make would be hold all elections on even years in November. In some cases, this switch alone would boost turnout dramatically over what it is now if you held these local elections at the same time as the national elections. But often there are powerful forces that want to keep things the way they are.

Would Democrats benefit most from turnout-increasing changes?

In most situations, the answer is probably yes. That’s what many argue. But if you dig a little deeper, it’s clear that in some elections, key Democratic groups benefit from keeping voter turnout low. Perhaps the best example of this is school board elections and the way that teachers unions can benefit from lower turnout.

If you hold a state election at the same time as a national election, it’s quite possible you’re going to get a larger share of Democrats in the electorate. But the push to align local school board elections with national elections, which would dramatically increase turnout, is pushed primarily by Republicans.

Why is that?

Because this is an area where it’s the Democrats who benefit from greater barriers to participation and low voter turnout. It allows a key Democratic interest group, teachers unions, to be more influential.

So it’s really strange when you read about these debates to align school board elections with national elections, you see Republicans saying things like, “We need to do everything possible to increase participation and increase turnout in these elections.” And it’s the Democrats who are saying, “No, we need to protect local control.”

Another argument I have heard in favor of off-year and off-cycle elections for school boards is that it helps keep the politics out of education decisions.

This is the classic Progressive Era argument, that local government should be detached from politics. Decisions should be made by experts to keep policy free of politics. My view is that you can’t ever take the politics out of these decisions. As long as you are electing people, as long as you have government, you’re going to have politics. And when you decide to elect representatives through low-turnout elections, you are just trading one kind of politics for another.

When you push supporters of off-cycle elections on this, what you eventually hear is: “At least we know that the people who do show up know about the issues. They are the ones who have enough information to cast an educated vote, a well-informed vote.” But what they are really saying is: “We don’t want the masses voting in our elections.”

It’s important to not be naive about what’s really going on. No one ever tells you, “We’re doing this because we’re more likely to get our way if you don’t vote.” They put it in terms of public interest, just because that’s what you have to do to make it appealing. But the truth is that everybody in the school district is paying taxes toward the school district. Why shouldn’t they all have a say?

If we moved all school board elections to the first Tuesday in November in even years, how do you think that would change those elections?

The evidence suggests that one result would likely be an electorate for school board races that is much younger and more diverse than what we see right now. It also seems likely that well-organized groups, such as teachers unions, would see a weakening of their influence unless they were able to refocus on reaching a broader audience with their mobilization and persuasion materials.

Would that make teachers unions more responsive to voters? Perhaps. If they knew that twice as many people were going to turn out to vote in a school board election, it would become politically important to appeal to all of those people.