What are ‘off-year’ elections and why do they matter in 2021?

Row of various red, white and blue “Vote” pins (© Leigh Prather/Shutterstock)
(© Leigh Prather/Shutterstock)

U.S. presidential elections might get worldwide attention, but “off-year” elections, like the one November 2, are important too.

Americans will go to the polls this November to elect governors and legislators in two states, mayors in some 250 cities — including Miami and New York City — and numerous local officials across the United States.

Voters in several states also will get a chance to make policy themselves. They will get to answer ballot questions to determine whether to raise or cut specific taxes, allow certain types of gambling, and change the way judges are elected, among other statewide measures.

An off-year election is a general election in the United States that occurs during odd-numbered years, unlike federal elections, which take place in even-numbered years. It is held when neither a presidential election nor a midterm election takes place, the latter referring to U.S. congressional elections that come nearly two years into a president’s four-year term.

African American man at voting booth (© LightField Studios/Shutterstock)
Voters in two states and various localities will go to the polls in the 2021 off-year elections. (© LightField Studios/Shutterstock)

Of the 50 states, only New Jersey and Virginia hold gubernatorial elections this November. Voters there will select their governors and state legislators. One reason a state might select an odd year to hold elections is to keep presidential and federal issues separate from local ones.

At the city level, Boston, Cincinnati, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Seattle and St. Louis are among the cities whose voters will select mayors in 2021, in addition to New York and Miami.

Many city council and local school district seats will be decided this year as well, in what are also called “off-cycle” elections.

State and municipal elections are important because of the influence the elected policymakers have at the local level. “From where I stand, they have a far greater impact on the life of ordinary citizens than Congress,” Tim Storey, the executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, said of state-level bodies to the New York Times.

Candidates aren’t the only items on voters’ ballots this November. Voters are expected to consider an estimated 24 statewide ballot measures this November 2 on issues ranging from taxes to judicial requirements.

Results of off-year, midterm, presidential and local races all matter. As Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president, is widely quoted as saying, “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision.”

To learn more about how federalism works in the United States, read our three-part series on federalstate and local government.