May 24, 2017

Approximately half of mayoral elections in six U.S. states are unopposed

Approximately half of mayoral elections in six U.S. states are unopposed, and unopposed elections are on the rise, according to a report from the Center for Local Elections in American Politics, part of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

“Who Runs for Mayor in America” focuses on elections of mayors in municipalities in California, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota and Virginia, which include roughly 10 percent of the country’s municipalities.

The study’s key finding revealed that about half of all mayoral elections in the six states studied featured only one candidate. Unopposed elections were particularly prevalent in small towns, where 79 percent of elections were uncontested, but they were notably rare in the biggest cities, where only 15 percent of contests saw only one candidate.

And despite variation in the percentage of uncontested mayoral contests, since 2000, unopposed elections are on the rise. By 2016, on average 60 percent of mayoral contests in the six states examined in this report involved only one candidate.

“An interesting puzzle is that despite the high rates of unopposed elections in small towns, these are the same places that have the highest rates of voter turnout in their mayoral races -- and this holds regardless of election timing,” Marschall said. “We tend to think that the health of local democracy depends on having electoral competition, but perhaps in small towns, where people are much more likely to know the candidates, norms of civility and communitarianism might discourage competition.”

Marschall said that if local residents treat serving as mayor as part of their civic duty, then it is possible that political culture might also dictate that residents not challenge the candidate who steps forward to serve in this capacity.

Other findings from the report include:

  • Unopposed elections were less prevalent in cities and towns with larger minority populations. Indeed, as the percentage of the nonwhite population increased, the incidence of uncontested mayoral elections decreased.
  • Incumbents were the norm in mayoral elections in these six states; on average, over two-thirds of mayoral contests featured an incumbent on the ballot.
  • Women were significantly underrepresented when it comes to running for mayor. On average, only 17 percent of all mayoral candidates in this study were female. Female candidates were slightly more common in suburban mayoral elections (18 percent) compared with in rural towns (15.7 percent) or central cities (16.8 percent).

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