Understanding and improving American voter turnout

David Becker, Director of the Election Initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trusts, issued a clarion call in the Stanford Social Innovation Review for a “new approach to reversing the downward spiral of low turnout.”  The article is part of a series on “The Role of Philanthropy and Nonprofits in Increasing US Voter Turnout” sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

There is much to be commended in Becker’s article. He calls for a comprehensive survey to understand non-voters, in contrast to the typical academic surveys that focus on understanding voters.   The survey will feed into field experimental studies that will identify methods and techniques to motivate non-voters to vote, and perhaps more importantly, move tangential (presidential only) voters into habitual voters.

Now comes the academic rain on Becker’s parade.

First, there is little evidence of a “downward spiral” in voter turnout, if by downward spiral, Becker means a self-reinforcing, vicious circle of a low turnout election, followed by political dissatisfaction (perhaps stimulated by a polarized legislature), followed by even lower turnout.

Kelly Born’s article that launched off the series, drawn from the US Elections Project, shows that voter turnout in Presidential and Midterm elections has been mostly unchanged for nearly a century.  There have been bumps up and down, but focusing (as Becker does) on low turnout in 2014 because it coincidentally is the lowest turnout in a federal general election since 1942 is a convenient choice of endpoints while ignoring 70 years of data in between.

Source: University of Florida US Elections Project

What is quite apparent is that turnout in the United States was high in the 19th century, declined during the Progressive era, in part as a consequence of reforms intended to weaken the role of parties in structuring our political system, and in part because two large waves of newly eligible voters entered the system, immigrants and women.

If we focus in more closely on the post-war era, there is an apparent decline in participation after 1968–volumes have been written about the impact of the 1960s on American politics–but also a substantial increase in turnout from 1996-2008.

Courtesy: US Elections Project

Courtesy: US Elections Project

In short, there is little evidence of a downward spiral in turnout.  Instead, as Adam Berinsky points out,

“…the only way to both increase turnout and eliminate socioeconomic biases in the voting population is to increase the engagement of the broader public with the political world. Political information and interest, not the high tangible costs of the act of voting, are the real barriers to a truly democratic voting public.”

This doesn’t mean that detailed surveys focusing on non-voting will not be valuable–they surely will be.  And a toolbox of approaches for non-partisan voter mobilization groups would be an invaluable contribution to the field.

But we need to take seriously the political and structural barriers to substantially increasing participation in the United States.  For instance, the real gains will be made among younger voters (18-29)(call for proposals here), less well-educated voters, and Hispanics (not African Americans, unless participation among this group declines substantially with Obama no longer on the ticket).  (See demographic comparisons here.)

And we need to turn our attention to other elections.  In primary elections, for example, turnout levels are abysmal and primaries arguably have a much larger impact on political polarization.  State and local elections rank even lower (25% turnout is high for a municipal election).  If we are really going to engage citizens with their political system, perhaps engaging them with the neighborhoods, towns, municipalities, and states would yield much higher gains.

College voting, college towns, and early voting

Hat tip to Doug Chapin who reported that the North Carolina State Board of Elections has ordered the Watauga County Board of Elections to establish an early voting location on the Appalachian State University campus.  (Full disclosure: I have been serving as the inaugural Daniel German Endowed Visiting Professor of Political Science at ASU from 2014-2016.)

Watauga_unaffil_18-25_2012Along with Doug, I followed this controversy during the 2014 general election, when I was on campus.  I took photographs at the time of the Watauga County Administration Building, the single location proposed by the County to conduct early voting, and the Plemmons Student Union, the proposed alternative location.  Unfortunately, these photos were lost along with my camera on a recent trip, so I will have to describe them from memory.

The problWatauga_unaffil_66_2012ems with the County building are many–parking is quite limited, the room designated for early voting is not very large, and the alcove that would shelter waiting voters from the weather (no small consideration in the mountains) is quite small.  Contrast this with the Student Union: there is a four story parking deck just across a sidewalk, the room used for early voting is a large ballroom in a much larger building that has good ADA access, restroom facilities, etc.

watauga2012_18yearoldMost importantly, however, the Union sits adjacent to a large traffic circle that serves as a primary hub for the “AppalCart”, the only public transportation system available in the county (the system is a partnership between ASU and the County).

I did find some problems with the Union.  I counted nine entrances to the building, and was able to find one tucked away in a corner that lacked the requisite “no canvassing” sign.  In addition, because the room for early voting is inside a larger building, it is not clear whether the “no canvassing” boundwatauga2012_66yearoldary starts from the outside of the building (encompassing the whole building) or from the door that actually enters the ballroom.  Do students (or others) wearing politically themed t-shirts inside the building, for example, violate the “no canvassing” rule?

The political patterns in the county are very clear, however.  The central part of Watauga (City of Boone) is younger, more likely to be unaffiliated, and vote Democratic at a much higher rate.  The outer portions of the county are older and more Republican.  Some quick graphics based on 2014 registration statistics are shown here.  Boone City is in the center of the map.  The link to the state statute that gives the SBOE this power is here.


Most observers are aware that early voting is an important part of the elections process, but much less attention has been given to how early voting may alter candidate competition and voter decision making during the presidential primaries.

As Redlawsk, Tolbert, and Donovan point out in Why Iowaa key feature of the current presidential primary process is that it is a sequential election. They write (p. 144):

…early events “matter” in part because news about outcomes in early states serves as a major source of information about candidate viability in a relatively low-information choice setting

When you add early voting to the mix, things get a lot more interesting, because some voters in later primary contests may not wait to cast their ballots until election day.  They may cast the ballots early, based on a different set of signals.

Consider this: if Bernie Sanders wins the New Hampshire primary on February 9th, as some models predict, no-excuse absentee ballots are already in the hands of voters in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and a number of other large states.

And early in-person voting will have started in a number of states prior to the South Carolina primary–currently identified as Hillary Clinton’s “firewall”.

Elliott Fullmer examined this question in his 2015 Presidential Studies Quarterly article, “Early Voting and Presidential Primaries: A New Advantage for Front Runners?”  Fullmer wrote in the abstract:

Early voting has become an important feature of presidential elections. While research has generally focused on whether programs increase turnout, few have considered whether early voting alters the information environment in campaigns. Those who vote early may do so before important information becomes available in the final weeks of a campaign. I speculate that early voting should benefit early front-runners in presidential nomination contests, as voters may cast early votes for these candidates before fully considering their less-known opponents. Examining exit-poll data from the 2008 Democratic primaries between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I find that Clinton indeed benefited from early voting in several early primary states.

Marc Meredith and Neil Maholtra, in their 2011 Election Law Journal article “Convenience Voting can Affect Election Outcomes,”  take a different look at this question, taking advantage of the “natural experiment” that is ongoing in California–some precincts (< 250 registered voters) are forced into fully vote by mail elections while slightly larger neighboring precincts use the normal mix of no-excuse and election day voting.

The especially interesting thing about the 2008 California primary is that John Edwards and Rudy Giuliani withdrew from the race only five days before the primary, and Fred Thompson withdrew 15 days before the primary. These three candidates were clearly “not viable” for those who cast ballots after they withdrew.  Not surprisingly, Edwards, Giuliani, and Thompson received a lot more support in the vote-by-mail precincts.

Overall, the authors conclude:

… the use of VBM affects the relative performance of candidates remaining in the race and increases the probability of selecting withdrawn candidates. Our findings have implications both for election administration policy and for the study of campaign effects in American elec- tions. Election officials should consider waiting until closer to Election Day to send out mail ballots, or instruct voters to wait until they are ready to make a decision before voting.

Will these same dynamics hold in 2016?  I have some strong suspicions that they will, but it will not necessarily benefit the front runner, as Fullmer found in 2008.  The volatility of the GOP field makes it much less predictable.  Candidate drop outs later in the season, and just before particular primaries, should alter the vote totals of the remaining candidates, but in ways that are not really predictable ahead of time.

All this makes for an interesting intellectual puzzle, but perhaps not more than that.  The percentages of voters who cast ballots more than a week before the scheduled primary is not usually that large.  I’ll be posting more information on that matter in a few days.


Ryan Claasen and Quin Monson of BYU have a recent article in the Journal of Political Science Education that tests the impact of a series of civic education exercises in two large introductory American politics classes.

What makes the paper particularly nice are these features that provide much greater leverage on the question of impact:

  • An identical manipulation was implemented at two large research universities, but ones with different local political cultures, one conservative and religious (BYU) the second more liberal and secular (Kent State)
  • They used experimental methods, assigning students to a “writing lab” that was, for a randomly selected portion, political blogging
  • They compared political behavior among the groups 6, 12, and 18 months after the classes

The impact of the class manipulation was modest, with only minor movements in reported voter turnout. More encouraging, however, was the impact of the blogging exercise on student engagement with politics writ large–the bloggers reported higher levels of news consumption and information about politics well after the class.

Abstract below:

Despite consensus regarding the civic shortcomings of American citizens, no such scholarly consensus exists regarding the effectiveness of civic education addressing political apathy and ignorance. Accordingly, we report the results of a detailed study of students enrolled in introductory American politics courses on the campuses of two large research universities. The study provides pre- and postmeasures for a broad range of political attitudes and behaviors and includes additional long-term observations in survey waves fielded 6, 12, and 18 months after the conclusion of the class. Long-term observation provides leverage absent in many prior studies and enables us to compare the changes we observe during the semester to those that take place beyond the confines of the classroom and during important political events, such as the 2012 presidential election. Also embedded in the study is an experiment designed to assess whether students’ enthusiasm for “new media” (e.g., blogs) can be harnessed in American politics courses to stimulate long-lasting political engagement. We find evidence that civic education matters for some, but not all, measures of political engagement. Moreover, we find evidence that what one does in the classroom also matters. For some dimensions of political engagement, this study finds evidence of lasting civic education effects and the experimental manipulation compellingly locates the source of some engagement variation in the classroom.

New article by Damien Bol in Party Politics examines when political parties support changes to the electoral formula in their country.  Bol implicitly compares a model where parties support a reform strictly because they think it will increase their share of seats in Parliament vs. reforms that benefit (or harm) social groups assumed to support the party’s platform.  (I think it’s a bit misleading to call this latter source of support “values” as Bol does in the titlebut later changes to “policy”.)

Regular readers of this blog may be confused by the title of the piece–“reform” refers only to changes in the proportionality formula–but the paper is an interesting treatment nonetheless.

Title: “Electoral reform, values and party self-interest”


It is often taken for granted that parties support electoral reform because they anticipate seat payoffs from the psychological and mechanical effects of the new electoral system. Although some studies point out that elements related to values and the willingness to achieve social goals are also relevant to explaining party preference in those situations, a general model of how these considerations influence support for electoral reform is still missing. To fill this gap, I develop in this article a policy-seeking model accounting for values-related factors and operationalize it using one of the most firmly established effects of electoral systems in the literature: The degree of inclusiveness and its consequences for the representation of social groups in parliament. The empirical relevance of this model is then tested using an original dataset reporting the actual position of 115 parties facing 22 electoral reform proposals in OECD countries since 1961. The results show that willingness to favour the electoral system most in line with a party’s electoral platform has a unique explanatory power over party support for a more proportional electoral system. In turn, values appear to be as crucial as party self-interest in explaining the overall electoral reform story.

The public does support voter ID laws, even if they don't know much about how these laws operate

It’s almost always correct that the devil is in the details, but it’s difficult to convey these details in short articles.  Making things worse, headline writers have a tendency toward clickbait.

Both tendencies are evident in a provocatively titled article, ” The public doesn’t support restrictive voter ID laws, but many new ones will be in force in 2016,” by Herman Schwartz in the Reuter’s Public Opinion Blog.

The title, read in isolation, is wrong, or at best badly misleading.   The public strongly supports a requirement to show a photo ID prior to voting.  Support is strong whether the question is asked in a very generic fashion or when specific kinds of photo IDs are described.   Schwartz looked at 37 polls for his commentary, including one that I collaborated on with scholars at MIT and Appalachian State University.  We report detailed question wordings for 19 polls are reported in the Appendix to our paper.

Our data (shown below) indicates that  support is uniformly strong among Republicans, while Democratic support varies by ideology, level of education, and attention to politics.  Nonetheless, more than half of Democrats (and far more Independents and Republicans) support photo ID in recent polls.

Partisan Support for Photo ID

Continue reading

Senate bill 8582, introduced 11/18/2015 in the New York legislature, would provide for early in-person voting in the Empire State.

I’ve talked to NY state legislators before, but not about this legislation.  It does contain some useful provisions that I often recommend, including:

  • A population based floor (but no ceiling) on the number of early voting locations
  • Allows for early voting “vote centers” in the City of New York (not county based)
  • An early voting period that includes two weekends and requires some Saturday and Sunday voting, and requires at least one early voting location in each county to stay open until 8 in the evening

Early voting locations are also subject to other location provisions, assuring that not just numbers, but accessibility will be taken into account:


Another excellent report by Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center.  Even if you don’t agree with their position on some of these legal changes, they maintain some of the best resources for election laws and procedures.

An excellent new podcast as part of Rick Hasen’s Election Law Blog (ELB) series features Prof. Nathan Persily addressing the question “can the Supreme Court handle social science?”  Persily addresses the question in light of recent litigation over campaign finance and voter identification.

Persily is well-known in the election reform community; for the broader political science community, Persily received his PhD in Political Science from Berkeley, his JD from Stanford, and served as research director for the Presidential Commission on Election Administration.  Many may be familiar with him from his recent edited volume on Cambridge Solutions to Political Polarization in America.

Any political scientist who is interested in how the Court and the legal community views our scholarship, and more generally in how social science can be made more comprehensible and impactful in the policy community, would do well to listen to this short 30 minute podcast.

A quick link to Peter Miller and my paper on public opinion and torture. not pertinent to Early Voting but this lets us get to our presentation.