Are Special Elections Special?

While the United States does have its problems with democracy, one area where we shine is direct democracy. Rare at the federal level, at the state and local level direct democracy is quite common in the US, much more so than most other democracies (Switzerland also stands out). Almost half the states have some form of citizen initiative or referendum process, and it is used frequently in most of those states. But even more direct democracy takes place at the local level.

And much of that direct democracy at the local level takes place through what are called special elections. I’m not talking about elections to fill unexpected vacancies in office — though of course those do happen. I’m talking about actual voting on issues. Many of these issues revolve around questions of public finance: whether to raise a local sales tax, to approve a property tax millage, or to issue bonds for a capital project.

One very relevant example for me is an upcoming special election in my city of Conway, Arkansas. Citizens are being asked to approve the issuing of bonds to construct a community center, pool, soccer fields, and some other amenities. The bonds would be secured by a tax on restaurants. The tax already exists — city councils can put these in place without a public vote. But to issue bonds, the citizens must be asked. I wrote an op-ed about it in my local paper (if that is gated, try this blog post).

The key is that this is a special election. There are no other issues on the ballot. It takes place on February 8th, not a date that probably stands out in voters minds as an election date. What will this special election mean for voter turnout? A lot of academic research, including a paper that I wrote (currently under review, but summarized here), finds clear evidence that voter turnout will be much lower. Will the result be different? Again, a lot of evidence suggests yes. For example, property tax elections in Louisiana were less likely to pass with higher turnout, and less likely to pass in a general election (my research finds a similar result for sales tax elections in Arkansas).

But why are tax increases less likely to pass in special elections? On this question there are many theories, but they are hard to test. Is it because different kinds of voters show up at special elections, representing a different sample of the population? Possibly, but evidence is hard to find.

A new paper just published in the American Political Science Review sheds some light on these questions.

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