Voter Turnout Lags in America's 22 Largest Cities

by Jessica Kincaid // Published June 13, 2014

voter turnout chart

Low voter turnout is commonplace for America’s 22 largest cities. In mayoral elections taking place from 2008 through 2011, no city had a turnout of more than 45% of registered voters -- which translates into an even lower figure among eligible voters. Of those 22 elections, 15 cities had mayoral voter turnout under 33%, and ten cities experienced a turnout under 20%. In San Antonio and El Paso, turnout lingered in the single digits.

To underscore those facts: the mayors of nearly half of America’s largest cities were elected by less than one in five registered voters – and in two of these cities more than nine in ten registered voters stayed home.

San Diego had an impressive turnout rate of 76.98% during its 2012 general election, which can be attributed to its being held in tandem with the 2012 Presidential election. The resignation of San Diego’s elected mayor, however, led to a more recent special election that received a much lower turnout rate of 43.58%.

Local primary and runoff elections see even worse rates of participation. Seven of these cities held primary elections to nominate mayoral candidates. Turnout in these primaries did not pass 40%. Five of the largest 22 cities held runoff elections with turnout floundering at 39%. 

The city with the second highest turnout in its most recent election was San Francisco, with a relatively strong 42%. San Francisco is also the only city of the 22 to use the instant runoff voting (IRV) form of ranked choice voting in its mayoral elections. Even when it doesn't bring new voters to the polls, IRV typically means one single, decisive election takes place when the most voters are likely to participate.

San Jose will be holding an election for mayor this November. Riding on the coattails of November midterm elections, San Jose’s voter turnout will likely be disproportionately high.

With these dismal turnout rates, it's clear that we should have a national conversation about participation in non-presidential elections -- as FairVote is doing with its new Promote Our Vote project, with specific ideas for how cities can take action to spark higher turnout.

Click here for a spreadsheet containing turnout data for these 22 cities for their most recent elections, including primaries, first rounds, and special elections. Tips on how to use the spreadsheet can be found in the "Read Me" tab.