Why These 5 States Hold Odd-Year Elections

Out of 50 states, only five—Mississippi, Kentucky, Virginia, New Jersey, and Louisiana—hold elections for state officials in odd-numbered years. Here's why.

In November, Americans will head to the polls to elect the next U.S. president. But state representatives such as governors and legislators won’t be on the ballot in some states this year. While most U.S. states hold statewide elections on the first Tuesday of November in even-numbered years, the states of Mississippi, Kentucky, Virginia, New Jersey, and Louisiana have an odd-year election schedule, instead. What gives? Check out the answers to 15 more political questions you’re too embarrassed to ask.

History of odd-year elections

Elections for state and federal officials were not always as aligned as they are now. Before Congress standardized congressional elections in 1872, states could hold their elections any time they wanted, so many races took place on different days, years, and even seasons. Eventually, it became cheaper and more time-efficient to hold state and national elections at the same time. But a few states opted to hold elections for some state officials in odd-numbered years, instead, to maintain independence from the federal government.

That said, elections can—and do—still take place in odd years in every state. Even if there is not a federal or state candidate on the ticket, voters might cast ballots for mayors or other local officials, or vote on an issue like a referendum or budget resolution, in odd-numbered years. There is an important reason why we vote on a Tuesday in November, too.

Pros and cons of odd-year elections

An odd-year election schedule has its benefits. For one, poll workers and voters would be more accustomed to the official procedures and voting machines. Advocates also argue that a smaller number of races ensures that voters will complete the entire ballot.

But there are also drawbacks. With elections taking place every single year, states must spend more money. In fact, Kentucky lawmakers estimate that the odd-year schedule costs an additional $15.5 million every four years. That includes the cost of training staff, maintaining equipment, and adjusting to state code or procedural changes.

What’s more, data shows that voter turnout is much lower in odd-year elections. In Virginia, less than half the number of voters turned out for the 2015 legislative election compared to the 2016 presidential race. About 59 percent of registered Kentucky voters cast a vote in 2016, while 31 percent of Kentuckians voted in the 2015 gubernatorial race. And in New Jersey, 68 percent of registered voters came to the polls in 2016, but just 39 percent participated in the election for governor a year later.

Given the downsides, why would five states still hold elections for statewide positions in odd-numbered years? Turns out, each state’s reason is rooted in a unique history.

Mississippi

Mississippi has had odd-year elections for more than 200 years, starting in 1817. A few decades later, the state almost aligned its elections with federal ones. But White Mississippi delegates believed that new legislation called the Federal Elections Bill, which protected the ability of Black people to vote in congressional elections, threatened their political power in the state. They wanted to avoid federal monitoring of local polling places, where Black people were often intimidated or turned away. As a result, they decided to continue running state elections in odd-numbered years. Watch out for red flags that voter suppression is still happening in your area.

Kentucky

In Kentucky, elections for governor take place in odd-numbered years to avoid overlapping with a presidential race. Like lawmakers in Mississippi, Kentucky politicians feared that holding statewide elections at the same time as federal ones would lead to more oversight by the federal government. They chose to hold elections for governor during odd-numbered years to resist any type of federal interference on Election Day, such as sending troops to the polls. Learn more bizarre things the government actually has the power to do.

Virginia

The Virginia General Assembly, rather than citizens, voted in gubernatorial races until the mid-19th century. In 1851, Virginia legislators adopted a new state constitution, and voters elected the governor for the first time that December. The odd-year tradition stuck. These days, Virginians might actually prefer to hold state elections in odd-numbered years. Some believe that staggering local elections with national ones protects the results from being influenced by national trends. Find out 15 interesting facts and figures about the Constitution.

New Jersey

When New Jersey updated its state constitution in the mid-20th century, the Garden State adopted an odd-year election schedule. At the time, New Jersey’s Republican governor Alfred E. Driscoll argued that the move would prevent statewide elections from being overshadowed by federal elections, as well as encourage people to vote based on the state’s problems and needs. But some believe there was also a political motivation: Driscoll did not want to share a ballot with Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Louisiana

For nearly a century, Louisiana held elections for state officials in the spring of the even-numbered year of a presidential race. But that changed in the 1970s, as voters in longtime Democratic states in the South began voting for Republican politicians. Hoping to protect his party’s political future in the state, Louisiana’s governor at the time, Democrat Edwin Edwards, encouraged lawmakers to move statewide elections to odd years. Ready to vote this year? Here is everything you need to get out and vote in 2020.

Sources:

  • NPR: “Why These 5 States Hold Odd-Year Elections, Bucking the Trend.”
  • NCSL.org: “Why Do Four States Have Odd-Year Elections?”
  • WM.edu: “Virginia’s Off-Off-Year Elections”
  • The Spokesman-Review: “House proposal would end most odd-year elections”