A sign points people toward Cleveland's Issue 38 debate in downtown Cleveland.
A sign points people toward Cleveland's Issue 38 debate in downtown Cleveland. Credit: Nick Castele

Cleveland CIty Council hosted a debate last week over Issue 38, a charter amendment on the Nov. 7 ballot that would allow residents to vote on how to spend an amount equal to 2% of the city’s budget each year. A group of Cleveland Documenters watched and noticed that debaters on both sides bolstered their points using a study that looked at the process called participatory budgeting, or PB. The study focused on voters in New York City. 

What the sides said

People's Budget Cleveland campaign organizer Aleena Starks makes the case for Issue 38 in a downtown debate.
People’s Budget Cleveland campaign organizer Aleena Starks makes the case for Issue 38 in a downtown debate. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

Research finds that people who participate in PB (participatory budgeting) are 8% more likely to vote in an upcoming municipal election. For people of color, that number grows to 20%.

Aleena Starks, representing Yes on Issue 38
Ward 13 resident Robyn Kaltenbach argues against participatory budgeting.
Ward 13 resident Robyn Kaltenbach argues against participatory budgeting. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

They’re talking about an 8% probability that it will increase turnout voting. That’s not an increase of 8%. It means that they’re likely, potentially, 8% more likely to come out to vote. However, those are among already voting individuals.

Robyn Kaltenbach, representing No on Issue 38

What was the study about?

The 8% statistic comes from a 2023 study called Testing the Participation Hypothesis: Evidence from Participatory Budgeting. (If you have a Cleveland Public Library card, you can read the whole study.) It used voting data to measure what effect participatory budgeting has had on voting in regular elections. The researchers compared New York City voters who participated in a PB election with similar voters in places where participatory budgeting wasn’t an option.

The key question was: Are people who vote in a participatory budgeting process more likely to vote in a regular election?

And the study found….

Overall, yes. People who voted in a PB election were 8.4 percentage points more likely to vote in a regular election in the future. The researchers also found that people who traditionally were less likely to vote in regular elections were more likely to vote in future elections – especially local ones –  after they voted as part of a PB process. 

The positive effects vary across different sub-populations, with stronger effects for those groups who often have a lower propensity to vote: people under 30, people from less well-educated or lower-income neighborhoods, and people who are not members of the majority race of their neighborhood. Additionally, we find that Black voters see the largest positive effects from [participatory budgeting], while white voters experience the smallest effects.


Testing the Participation Hypothesis: Evidence from Participatory Budgeting, 2023

So, how accurate were the statements?

Starks’ statements were accurate based on what the study found. She was also correct that the effect is even higher for Black voters.

The statistic she used refers to the overall effect participating in a PB election can have on voting habits. To understand that, researchers looked at the voter turnout of Black and white voters in national and local elections in New York City.

White voters who participated in a PB election were 15 percentage points more likely to vote in a future local election while Black voters were 22 percentage points more likely —  a difference of about 7 percentage points between the two groups. 

Percent vs. Percentage Points 

Percent is a number or ratio expressed as a fraction of 100. For example, one out of every five people is the same as 20% (⅕ x 100)

Percentage points are used to describe the differences between two percentages. For example, the difference between 10% and 3% is 7 percentage points.

Kaltenbach said voter turnout didn’t increase by 8%. That’s true. Researchers weren’t focused on overall turnout, though. They were looking at how PB affected the habits of individual voters. However, they did find that people who participated in a PB election generally turned out to vote at higher rates.

Kaltenbach also emphasized that the study only looked at “already voting individuals.” The study included only people who were registered voters, both more and less active.  It found that the active voters, people who already vote in most elections, didn’t have as much room to improve.

The less active voters were more likely to vote in a future election if they had participated in a PB election, compared to voters who didn’t. That effect of participatory budgeting increases the likelihood of voting most in local elections, where turnout is typically lower to begin with, and less in national elections, where turnout is generally  higher to begin with.

Does this mean anything for Cleveland’s efforts?

The study does have some limitations. There’s no way to say the effect found in New York would be the same in Cleveland, the researchers told Signal Cleveland. But overall, participatory budgeting does engage people who are less engaged, the researchers found. And it still is likely to have the biggest impact on people who are more disconnected from politics if you can get them involved –  and do it in a way that’s sustained.

Director, Research + Impact (she/her)
April has a passion for weaving together data and community voices. Her career highlights include research into the rental-housing market in Cleveland to inform policy change and program development and co-founding Data Days Cleveland to help amplify the value of data.