What’s the Deal With Off-Year Elections?

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While it might feel like the 2020 election cycle just ended, there are a lot of important races on the horizon this year. In today’s Explainer, we walk through which states have off-year elections in 2021, why they have them and how the delayed redistricting process could upend expectations. 

Why do some states hold off-year elections?

Five states hold statewide off-year elections, often in odd-numbered years: Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, Mississippi and Virginia. In this off year, only two of the five off-year states will have state elections — New Jersey and Virginia.* They will hold regular elections for the governor and state legislature. 

The history behind each state’s calendar differs widely, with some maintaining the tradition for over 200 years and others just a few decades. But, all off-year states share two common goals: avoid the attention that comes with federal races and keep turnout low. 

Virginia, Louisiana and New Jersey changed their state elections to off-years at times when their state leadership, whether Democrat- or Republican-controlled, was concerned that a changing national political climate would throw them out of power. No matter the popularity of the current president, state leaders wanted to avoid running their local elections on the presidential or congressional midterm tickets, so they moved their election years. And in Mississippi and Kentucky, the change came in response to a proposed 1890 “Federal Elections Bill,” with which Congress hoped to empower federal observers to monitor polling places and protect Black voters in the Jim Crow era, though the bill failed to pass. Scared of what this federal enforcement would mean for the political fates of white officials in power, Mississippi and Kentucky moved their state elections to odd-numbered years to avoid the federal oversight that never came to be.

In addition to these five states, elections for the U.S. House can fall on off years if special elections are needed to fill an unexpected vacancy in the chamber. In 2021, the special elections for House seats could have a significant impact on the slim Democratic majority. Since the start of the year, two members of the House have passed away and three have resigned to join the Biden administration, leaving the Democratic majority at a slim advantage of six seats. While Republicans can’t win an outright majority in the three upcoming special House elections, the results could significantly alter the balance of the chamber. For now, two of the seats are looking good for Democrats and one could go either way, according to FiveThirtyEight

What do off-year elections mean for turnout?

There are a few ways that off-year elections have ramifications on turnout and, in turn, access to the ballot box. First, the actual administration of these elections raises concerns about voter turnout. Even though many of these states have held off-year elections for decades, it is still harder to raise voter awareness in a year without presidential or even congressional races on the ballot. Low turnout races usually mean that certain voters make up a disproportionate share of the electorate — older, whiter, wealthier and more conservative voters are more likely to turn out in midterm and off-year elections than other groups. High voter turnout is vital to a healthy democracy, especially if low turnout means that the electorate is not representative of the population as a whole. The priority in 2021 will be to mobilize voters in all five of these states to ensure awareness and an understanding of how to vote in the elections, especially as Republican lawmakers continue their assault on voting access across the states.

What impact will redistricting have on elections in 2021?

The delayed release of census data could have significant implications for state legislative elections this year. The full data from last year’s census collection is not expected to be delivered to states until later this year, making it almost impossible for those with 2021 legislative elections to redraw their maps before Election Day. Some states predicted this headache last year when the pandemic and the Trump administration posed significant challenges for the U.S. Census Bureau. New Jersey officials acted quickly and decided last year that if the census data was delayed, they would push redistricting to 2022 and carry out the 2021 elections with old maps. Other states, however, were less willing to delay the reapportionment of representation for their citizens and now face a set of challenges.

What’s more, Virginia could potentially add a whole new election for the Virginia State Legislature. The state faces a major challenge because the Census Bureau recently announced that the state’s data won’t be released until late July, and the first primaries are in August. There are many possible solutions to this problem, ranging from the state’s attorney general making a plan for new maps, to the courts getting involved and drawing the maps themselves before the election. One outcome that legislators on both sides seem unenthusiastic about, however, is adding a new election in 2022, which would require the state to hold legislative elections every year for three consecutive years. With the time, money and infrastructure required to carry out a campaign, the potential sounds exhausting, but it may be the solution that gives Virginia voters new, fair maps as soon as possible.

Although off-year elections are the exception to the rule, their outcomes impact voters across the country — and they will undoubtedly impact the 2022 midterm elections. No matter an off-year or on-year election, it’s still important to be cognizant of local elections happening in your community. As state governments figure out how to hold fair and free elections in the face of redistricting and Republican interference, it’s vital that voters show up to the polls and make their voices heard. Be sure to check your secretary of state’s website for elections coming up in your state, and make a plan to vote this year! 

*Note: This year, Mississippi will only hold a municipal election. Louisiana will hold state senate elections (special) and municipal elections. Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi will hold gubernatorial elections in 2023. 

Regarding 2021’s off-year elections, we want to note that there are other special elections happening across the country. You can find the full list of 2021 congressional special elections here and state legislative special elections here.