Although it is common to think of elections as just happening in early November of even-numbered years, elections happen all the time—in other months, and in odd-numbered years, too. Federal elections haven’t always been set for the first Tuesday after the first Monday in even-numbered years. When elections are held “off cycle”—that is, at a time other than November of the even-numbered year—turnout will be lower, and the composition of the electorate that does turnout will usually be quite different from more visible elections.
This explainer was last updated May 6, 2022.
In the United States, Election Day for the federal offices of President, Vice President, House of Representatives, and Senate was set by Congressional statute in 1845. Elections for these offices are held “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November, in every even-numbered year” (2 U.S. Code § 7). Federal election dates vary in practice from November 2 to November 8. While most states peg election dates for statewide offices to national Election Day, five states (Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia) hold statewide gubernatorial elections in odd-numbered years. Of these states, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia also hold elections for state legislative offices in odd-numbered years (“off-cycle”).
Timing for local elections throughout the United States varies widely. The vast majority of elections for offices below the state level are held on dates other than national Election Day (Wood 2002). Local election dates vary extensively for a variety of reasons; scholars have proposed that party competition and municipal reforms designed to combat corruption, among other factors, have influenced the establishment of local election dates (Anzia 2010).
Academic research surrounding election timing has focused on two major areas. First, scholars have studied whether scheduling elections on dates other than national Election Day affects turnout. Second, researchers have investigated whether holding elections off-cycle relative to national elections provides electoral advantages to particular parties or groups.
Election timing and turnout
Turnout in U.S. elections reaches its highest level during presidential elections. In the 2020 presidential election, voter turnout was estimated to be approximately 67% of the voting-eligible population (“VEP”). In comparison, approximately 50% of eligible voters turned out in the 2018 midterm election (see the United States Election Project for detail). Turnout in state and primary elections tends to be lower still (Berry and Gersen 2010; Wood 2002).
Accordingly, scholars have both theorized and demonstrated that elections that coincide with national Election Day dates in presidential years should generate the highest turnout. In theory, this occurs because scheduling local elections to be held on the same dates as state and national elections reduces the costs of voting (Aldrich 1993). Voters only need to take time out to cast their ballots once.
In practice, turnout for local elections scheduled concurrently with state or national elections does tend to be much higher than turnout for local elections that are off cycle. Researchers have shown that gubernatorial elections scheduled on Election Day in presidential years yield higher turnout than gubernatorial elections held at other times (Patterson and Caldeira 1983). Political science research has unveiled similar patterns in municipal elections. In California, turnout during municipal elections held during presidential election years was over 30 percent higher than turnout for elections held off the national cycle (Hajnal and Lewis 2003; Hajnal, Lewis and Louch 2002).
Strategic manipulation of election timing
Some political scientists have suggested that parties and interest groups strategically manipulate election timing to take advantage of the lower (or higher) turnout associated with various election schedules (Anzia 2011). Political actors, academic theory holds, have incentives to reshape the electorate in ways that help them win, and this type of strategic activity can include choosing the timing of the election (Smith 2004). This can mean finding ways to reduce turnout when they want to elect candidates who appeal to just a portion of voters and do things that are not generally popular or increasing turnout when they need a broad coalition of voters to pass measures or elect particular candidates.
One area in which this is frequently studied is school board and ballot measure elections. Stakeholders in school board and ballot measure elections tend to be well-defined, and election timing for these elections changes often. This has given researchers extensive opportunities to study the effects of changes to election timing. Dunne, Reed, and Wilbanks (1997) have suggested that school boards deliberately schedule votes for school bonds in off-years to reduce the size of the electorate and ensure that a larger proportion of voters consists of those who might vote yes.
Similarly, scholars have shown that school boards in Wisconsin explicitly use information about voter preferences at various points in time to schedule elections (Meredith 2009). In Louisiana, political scientists have shown that higher turnout corresponds to lower support for proposed tax measures and that turnout for tax ballot measure votes tends to be higher when those votes coincide with state and federal elections (Pecquet, Coats, and Yen 1996). Accordingly, researchers have suggested that politicians who wish to pass tax measures have an incentive to schedule off-cycle votes. A more detailed review of these findings appears in Anzia 2011.
New research is also trying to determine whether or not the well-known incumbent advantage is affected by election timing. So far, results seem to point to a continued but smaller incumbent advantage for those running in off-cycle years compared to those running in on-cycle elections (Benedictis-Kessner 2018).
Election timing and representation
Strategic selection of the election calendar can have important consequences for representation. Academic research has increasingly suggested that the ability to change election dates (generally from on-cycle to off-cycle) benefits large, well-organized interest groups (Anzia 2014). In education, teachers’ unions represent one example of well-organized interest groups. Researchers have found that pay for teachers in areas that hold their elections in off-years is significantly higher than pay for teachers in areas that hold elections in presidential years (Anzia 2011).
Election timing can also have consequences for racial representation. In one study, proportional representation for black voters on school boards in North Carolina was highest when elections coincided with general elections. Focusing on mayoral and city council elections, researchers have also demonstrated that lower turnout in off-cycle elections reduces representation for Latino, Asian-American, and African American voters (Hajnal and Trounstine 2005).
Election timing in other countries
The timing of elections is a major issue in other countries. Americans can learn about subtleties of the issue from considering those cases.
In many countries with British colonial history, the Prime Minister has the power to call an election, and they often do so strategically. For example, in 2021, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a federal election well in advance of the end of his government’s mandate. This was widely perceived as a strategic decision: his party was high in the polls, and it makes sense to call an election when you think your party might win seats. Scholars who study strategic election timing have identified expectations of future performance as the crucial variable: party leaders should be expected to call elections when they think that holding an election now will produce a better result for them than holding an election later (Smith 2004).
American executives might not have as much control over the exact timing of their elections, but the behavior of party leaders in other countries shows that when elected officials get to choose the election date, their decisions are informed by their party’s strategic interests.