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Co-PIs: Melissa Marschall and Paru Shah



Urban politics scholars have for some time lamented the notable absence of a local elections database. Given the large number of cases (nearly 90,000 local governments) and considerable institutional and contextual variation across and within local governments, one might assume that the study of local elections is an area already well harvested by participation scholars. The truth however, is that this is a relatively unexplored area of inquiry. The absence of scholarly research on local elections is significant given that 96% of the nearly half million elected officials in the U.S., represent local rather than state or federal jurisdictions, and the fact that municipalities have the largest share with 27% (U.S. Census Bureau 1995).

The Local Elections in America Project (LEAP) will accomplish two goals. First, it offers a path-breaking methodology to create a centralized, comprehensive, and cost effective local elections database that will provide unparalleled opportunities for learning about local elections and the political, racial and socio-demographic features of American cities. The software application will systematically collect, digitize and disseminate data on city council and mayoral elections, employing an automated system that will continue to collect elections data long into the future without ongoing external funding. Moreover, the application will be highly flexible and could therefore be adapted to handle different types of elections (e.g., school board or judicial contests) or units of analysis (precincts).

The second goal of this project is to use the LEAP database as the foundation for a research project that focuses on the centrality of race/ethnicity in local electoral politics. The increasing racial/ethnic heterogeneity of the U.S. population is nowhere more evident than at the local level, which means that local elections provide the best arena for testing a whole range of theories. Our study focuses on the emergence and political ambition of minority candidates in American politics and the role of candidate and voter race/ethnicity in the process and outcome of American elections. To date almost no studies have examined the conditions under which minority candidates run for office and there is little in the way of theory to guide our understanding of the “supply side” of minority representation. Is the lack of minority representation in elective office due to the defeat of the minority candidate or the absence of minority candidates? No study has even ventured a guess at this question. Other specific questions this project will address include: Under what conditions do African Americans and Latinos decide to run for local office, and how is their “path to office” different than their white counterparts? And, once victorious, what is the trajectory of their political careers? How does candidate race/ethnicity shape the competitiveness of municipal elections (including primaries)? Under what conditions does the presence of minority candidates explain variations in turnout and/or the extent of race-based or cross-over voting?

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