The Journal of Politics


Where Turnout Matters: The Consequences of Uneven Turnout in City Politics

Zoltan Hajnala1 c1 and Jessica Trounstinea2 c2

a1 University of California, San Diego

a2 Princeton University


There is a widespread concern that imbalances in voter turnout across race and class have led to biased outcomes in American democracy. Yet empirical tests have generally found that the unrepresentative nature of the electorate has little effect on who wins and loses elections. We challenge this finding by arguing that existing research minimizes the chances of finding bias because it focuses largely on national elections where turnout is relatively high and where minority groups are generally too small a percentage of the population to sway elections. By focusing on city elections we find that lower turnout leads to substantial reductions in the representation of Latinos and Asian Americans on city councils and in the mayor's office. For African Americans district elections and off-cycle local elections are more important barriers to representation.

(Online publication August 20 2003)

(Received June 08 2004)


c1 Zoltan L. Hajnal ( is assistant professor of political science, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093–0521.

c2 Jessica Trounstine ( is assistant professor of politics, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544–1012.