Cities lead the nation in many ways, but not in voter turnout
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In her final days on the campaign trail, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton trolls Trump with mock letter from JFK to Khrushchev Trump-Graham relationship tested by week of public sparring Sunday shows — Mulvaney seeks to tamp down firestorm over quid pro quo comments, Doral decision MORE spent much of her time in Philadelphia, a city she hoped would carry the state of Pennsylvania. But despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans seven to one, Philly didn’t cast enough votes to turn the state.

Neither did Milwaukee in Wisconsin, Detroit in Michigan or Miami in Florida. While many cities outperform the rest of the country in terms of financial opportunity, higher education and diversity, they consistently underperform suburban and rural areas in voter turnout.  

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Consider that 57 percent of District of Columbia registered voters cast ballots in the 2016 election. That looks like great turnout when compared with other cities, or even to DC’s turnout for the 2014 mayoral election (just 38 percent). But DC’s turnout looks relatively feeble when compared with nearby suburban areas like Montgomery County, Maryland (63 percent turnout in 2016), and Arlington County, Virginia (67 percent turnout).

The fact is, residents of most major American cities typically vote at rates 5 to 15 percent lower than their suburban neighbors. Because of that lower level of engagement, and because they vote predictably blue, voters in most American cities are taken for granted by Democrats, ignored by Republicans, and unfortunately, rarely courted in national elections.

Yet despite their history of reduced turnout, cities represent an untapped opportunity for whichever party moves first. Urban counties in the Sun Belt will continue to grow, potentially turning some Southern states, such as fast-growing Texas, purple. Meanwhile, some say Democratic dominance in cities may have already reached its high water mark, especially as unions continue to fade and those with less income and education turn to Republicans for change. An increase in Republican voters in Michigan and Ohio’s cities could turn those states solidly red.

Lack of voter turnout is a problem in nearly every city, not just every four years, but every year in local elections. According to an analysis from Portland State University, turnout in the nation’s largest 30 cities is a dismal 20 percent of the voting age population. Ironically, cities have an array of get-out-the-vote measures in place—measures that appear not to be working.

I live in Philadelphia, a city with numerous ward leaders, committee people, and city-funded Neighborhood Advisory Committees, not to mention the efforts of politicians seeking election, people who in some way are all tasked with helping get-out-the-vote.

So why are these efforts so ineffective? To begin with, voter registration does not favor incumbents, so local government has no incentive to address the issue. Likewise, residents in cities that are run by essentially one party tend toward inertia, since the stakes in local elections seem relatively low. Finally, cities tend to be full of the young, poor and immigrants, demographic characteristics that correlate with the lowest rates of voter turnout. 

But there is good news: cities are primed to engage with voters. With elections nearly every year for positions from council to state house to governor, cities offer the chance to rapidly prototype voter registration and turnout efforts, evaluate which methods are most effective, monitor voter volatility due to new laws and better forecast what will happen in national elections.

Do absentee voter forms or transit assistance do more to increase turnout? Do local information sessions or political panels help more to get people engaged? Each city has a diversity of neighborhoods within it, but among American cities, there are recognizable neighborhood typologies where registration and turnout techniques could be more easily understood if shared and parsed as a whole.

It’s time that cities, proud pioneers in areas like sustainability and economic growth, harness their natural spirit of experimentation and collaboration to show they can also lead in engaging and turning out their residents to vote. A mere 1 percent urban voter increase would add millions of new voters to the rolls and engage them in having a stake in their community’s future.

If cities matched their suburban peers by raising turnout by 5 to 10 percent, they would effectively end the talk about swing states, turning those states Democratic, and focus the conversation instead on urban issues.

Diana Lind is Managing Director of the Fels Policy Research Initiative. She was previously the editor in chief of the urban policy publication, Next City.


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