Philadelphia’s Partisan Elections: The Implications of a Rare System

In 2015, Philadelphia’s current Mayor and City Council were elected with a voter turnout of just 25.5 percent. In 2011, when there was an incumbent mayor on the ballot, turnout barely surpassed 20 percent. There is a general consensus that low voter turnout is unhealthy for cities and democratic representation, and Philadelphia is not alone in this issue. In 2015 voter turnout in major cities ranged from 6.8 percent in Dallas to 40.7 percent in Chicago – but the question of turnout in Philadelphia is shaped by its relatively rare municipal election system.

Alternative election systems are sometimes floated as a means to fix the low turnout that ails us, and I wanted to dig into what studies tell us about the implications of different methods for electing mayors and city councilors. This blog post is the first in a three-part series that examines how different aspects of Philadelphia’s electoral system impact campaigns, voter turnout, and the outcome of municipal elections, and compares them to the impacts of alternative election.

In this first post, I will explore findings on the overarching structure of Philadelphia’s system – partisan elections with primary and general elections. This will be followed by examinations of the presence of at-large councilors in city council and the timing of municipal elections in non-federal election years.

(Image Courtesy of

Understanding Partisan vs. Nonpartisan Elections:

Although Philadelphia’s system of holding partisan elections for mayor and city council follows the same primary and general elections system used in most state and federal races, the structure is rare among municipalities. Only 16 of the United States’ 100 largest cities hold partisan elections. The other 84 have nonpartisan systems. [1]

In cities with partisan municipal elections, like Philadelphia, candidates compete in primaries to be the representative of their party in the general election. Primary winners have their party affiliation printed on the general election ballot.

The most common nonpartisan system is “top-two,” where all candidates and voters participate in a single, open primary ballot. The top-two vote-getters from the primary face off in a general election. The open primaries occur for city-wide races (mayor, at-large councilors) and within city council districts. No party labels appear next to candidates’ names on the ballot, although many candidates are affiliated with a political party.

The shift to nonpartisan elections at the municipal level started during the Progressive Era (1890-1920) as a method of dismantling political machines in larger cities. Although the majority of cities have adopted the nonpartisan system, both structures have proponents with arguments that are backed up, to varying degrees, by analyses of election results. I have pulled together a number of studies on partisan vs. nonpartisan election systems, to understand their impact on municipal election campaigns, turnout, and outcomes.

Because nonpartisan systems allow all voters to participate in crucial elections, rather than limiting the more contested primary elections in partisan systems to registered party voters, I had expected to find that nonpartisan systems would have higher voter turnout. However, research comparing partisan and nonpartisan systems has found the opposite to be true. Party labels provide important informational cues to voters and party infrastructures are effective at mobilizing support for minority candidates and voter turnout amongst low-income citizens. The findings are organized by their use as supporting arguments by the advocates of each type of election system.

Findings Cited by Nonpartisan Election Advocates:

  • In heavily Democratic cities with closed primaries, not all voters are eligible for the election that typically determines the mayor and city councilor; under the nonpartisan system, the most crucial election is open to all residents. [2]
  • It has been argued that minority candidates fare better in a nonpartisan system; there is some evidence to support this:
    • Latino candidates fare better under nonpartisan elections when positions are elected at-large. [3]
    • The change to a top-two system in California has been identified as a factor in increased racial representation among elected officials. [4]


Findings Cited by Partisan Election Advocates:

  • Partisan elections are more likely to be contested, are more competitive, and have higher voter turnout. [5]
  • Party labels provide a cue for voters as to which candidate best represents their view. In nonpartisan elections, voters rely on other cues, including presumed ethnicity and gender [6]
  • In partisan elections, voters rely less on incumbency as a cue. [7]
  • Because the nonpartisan ballot decreases the most common voter cue – party identification – the information cost is increased for citizens; it has been argued partisan elections have relatively more informed voting and democratic accountability. [8]
  • Partisan elections can mitigate class bias in voter turnout because local party workers help to bring lower-income citizens to the polls. [9]
  • Partisan impacts can enhance the success of Latino candidates when seats are elected by district. [10]
  • It has also been argued that nonpartisan elections disproportionately disenfranchise minority candidates who benefit from the name recognition and campaign support of party affiliation. [11]
  • Advocates of the nonpartisan system have argued that it produces more moderate candidates and decreases polarization, but there is little evidence that this occurs. In California, there has been no difference in how well moderates fare following a change from partisan to nonpartisan elections at the state level, moderates did not fare better than they would have under a closed, partisan system.  [12]


Advocates of both partisan and nonpartisan elections have data to support their arguments, but it is evident that a nonpartisan system is not a panacea for low voter turnout in Philadelphia. In fact, it could negatively impact racial and low-income representation in the city. In subsequent posts, I will explore the impact of two other key factors in the city’s election system – at-large councilors and the timing of municipal elections – to identify other influences on municipal elections and the potential impacts of alternative systems.


[1] National League of Cities (2016), “Partisan vs. Nonpartisan Elections,”

[2] Jason D. Olson and Omar H. Ali (2015), A Quiet Revolution: The Early Success of California’s Top Top Nonpartisan Primary New York: Open Primaries.

[3] Angel Luis Molina Jr. and Kenneth J. Meier (2016), “Demographic Dreams, Institutional Relaties;

[4] R. Michael Alvarez and J. Andrew Sinclair (2015) Nonpartisan Primary Election Reform, New York: Cambridge University Press.

[5] Melinda Gann Hall (2001), “State Supreme Courts in American Democracy: Probing the Myth of Judicial Election Reform,” American Political Science Review 95: 315-330; Chris W. Bonneau and Melina Gann Hall (2009) In Defense of Judicial Elections New York: Routledge; Chris W. Bonneau and Damon M. Cann (2015) “Party Identification and Vote Choice in Partisan and Nonpartisan Elections,” Political Behavior 27: 43-66. Neal Caren (2007), “Big City, Big Turnout? Electoral Participation in American Cities,” Journal of Urban Affairs 29(1): 31-46.

[6] National League of Cities (2016).

[7] Schaffner et al. (2001), “Teams Without Uniforms: The Nonpartisan Ballot in State and Local Elections,” Political Research Quarterly 54: 7-30.

[8] Caren (2007).

[9] National League of Cities (2016).

[10] Molina and Meier (2016).

[11] Greenville Online (2015), “Minorities Seek Referendum Repealing Nonpartisan Elections,” Sept. 23 2016,

[12] Thad Kousser et al. (2015), “Reform and Representation: A New Method Applied to Recent Electoral Changes,” SSSN.


Alison Shott, Ph.D. is an Associate Director at ESI. Alison’s dissertation examined the role of municipal associations in inter-municipal cooperation and collective intergovernmental lobbying. Her research on how election structures impact the rate of uncontested city council seats in Canadian municipalities will be published in Improving Democratic Governance in Newfoundland and Labrador, forthcoming from ISER Books in March 2017.  Alison is also a board member of Young Involved Philadelphia.

Share This