>> Tuesday, August 26, 2008
When talking about American elections one of the most common lamentations is that we have poor turnout. The commonly held belief is that we need to make voting as easy as possible to increase turnout. To this end, a number of options have been considered including internet voting and entirely mail in elections. Is this really the right approach? Are the elections in which these options have been used actually showing higher rates of turn out, and if so is across the board or only among certain demographics? Several studies have been conducted to examine these questions and the answers are not as straight forward as might be expected.
There are two main obstacles to overcome when one wants to vote. The first obstacle is registration. Obama is currently working as hard as he can to register voters to increase his potential voting pool. The second is the act of voting itself. This entails acquiring, filling out, and submitting the ballot. Most people believe that if we make it as easy as possible we can increase voter turnout. This makes sense, as people generally believe that this act is a simple cost benefit analysis. If the cost is made low enough surely no citizen will have an excuse or reason to abstain from voting.
There are many different tracts being taken to reduce this cost of voting. They include same day registration, permanent absentee voting, mail in elections, mobile voting booths. No one has yet instituted internet voting at the federal level though that is another option being considered in the age of technology. It seems fair though that before we spend millions, possibly billions, of dollars to wonder whether these reforms, designed to increase turnout, will actually do that.
The first thing that should be addressed is the mail in voting. This is the method that was employed in Oregon since 1996. It is particularly relevant because it is a system that has very high support among the public at large polling consistently above the 75% level of support even after more than a decade in use. The data on the results of the law is decidedly mixed.
The initial research into whether voting by mail would increase turnout was positive. A number of studies found that the more lenient the absentee voting laws, the higher the turn out. The first instances to observe whether voting by mail would have a dramatic effect were in local elections and they did prove to boost turnout. However, the elections have notoriously low turnout and the increase there should not be generalized to larger more high profile elections like the current presidential race. In a paper published in 2000 on the VBM elections in Oregon, Karp and Banducci found that
Turnout in the presidential election, the special Senate election, and the two presidential primaries conducted was roughly equivalent to the average turnout in comparable elections held at the polling place.
… that the composition of the electorate changes in important ways that are consistent with our expectations that VOBM elections will not mobilize groups that traditionally participate at lower rates.
These two conclusions taken together would prove very troubling for the Dems. The groups that from the backbone of the Dem constituency are those whose participation is actually reduced at the same time as participation in traditionally strong Rep demographics increases.
A 2005 paper, published by James Madison’s Mary Fitzgerald, supports this finding. This paper examined multiple different voting reforms to see what effects they had on the turnout both in gross numbers and across socio-economic lines. Her conclusions were similarly disappointing for proponents of voter reform.
…this study sheds new light on the relationships between early voting procedures and electoral participation, demonstrating their inability to boost turnout in elections despite providing greater accessibility to the ballot. As a result, convenient voting procedures such as early voting do not effectively accomplish the goal of contributing to more widespread participation in U.S. elections and thereby do not enhance the representativeness of the American electorate.
These are two of the more recent studies conducted but they are by no means the only ones. There is conflicting data from earlier studies that do find increases in turn out. I chose to take the most recent ones as I felt the closer in time to the present the less likely is it that there have been major structural or social changes to influence the data. There is a recent survey conducted by Priscilla L. Southwell, University of Oregon that found an increase among self-reporting voters of 25%. This data seems specious to me as it is a well established fact that people lie about voting in numbers up to 25% of those who say they voted. Self reporting an increase in voting just is not sound enough.
Electoral reforms that do seem to have a positive impact on the number of people who vote seem to focus not on the last step of the chain but on the first. Specifically, making it easier to register to vote has a small but significant impact on the turnout. This is a boost of around 3% and does usually tend to favor Dem demographics like the young and the minority voter. This is enough to make a big difference in close races and is one of the reasons it is so opposed by GOP pols.
The other source of information on VOBM that I found very interesting is the research coming out of Switzerland on the issue. Now it is true that the Swiss are a very different civic culture than us and their voting behavior may tell us nothing about our own voting behavior or the effects of voting reform. Despite this I think the data and conclusions of Simon Luechinger, Myra Rosinger and Alois Stutzer from the University of Zurich and University of Basel is worth relating.
One of the most important facts in this case is that voting by mail was introduced into different Swiss cantons at different times. This allows the identification of the impact of postal voting separate from time, issue and canton-specific effects on turnout. The study covers postal voting participation in national ballots for Swiss elections that were held between 1970 and 2005. They concluded the following,
According to our econometric analysis, the average effect the change over had on turnout (in national ballots) was roughly 4.1% points with an average turnout of 43% during the last three and a half decades. According to our most refined estimation, with canton-specific time trends, unrestricted postal voting led to a one time constant shift. We neither find a gradual increase in the effect of postal voting, nor robust evidence that the initial effect is gradually getting weaker. Additional specifications study differential effects by canton and referendum characteristics.
They too found that the main benefit of VOBM was found in the less high profile local elections.
You can take those results how you like. It is possible that the difference in American civic culture and that of the Swiss is enough to make that data irrelevant, or not.
Even assuming it to be true though 4% is hardly the massive boost that people seem to envision when they picture voting reform. They seem to long for the civic utopia where every one votes and everyone pays attention. How realistic this is, is left to you. I personally believe that we can achieve much higher turnout rates in this country thought the methods employed may be politically unfeasible.
The fist is shame voting. Remember those people who falsely report voting? Well evidence suggests that we can shame them into voting by threatening to send a letter to their neighbors or publish in a newspaper the names of those people who voted and who did not vote. The controversial Gerber and Green study, Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment, published earlier this year, found incredible returns when social pressure is applied,
The control group in our study voted at a rate of 29.7%. By comparison, the “Civic Duty” treatment group voted at a rate of 31.5%, suggesting that appeals to civic duty alone raise turnout by 1.8 percentage points. Adding social pressure in the form of Hawthorne effects raises turnout to 32.2%, which implies a 2.5 percentage point gain over the control group. The effect of showing households their own voting records is dramatic. Turnout climbs to 34.5%, a 4.9 percentage-point increase over the control group. Even more dramatic is the effect of showing households both their own voting records and the voting records of their neighbors. Turnout in this experimental group is 37.8%, which implies a remarkable 8.1 percentage-point treatment effect.
This of course brings with it a whole host of new dilemmas. For instance, do we really want people to vote so bad that we condemn them publicly for failing to do so? Would these people take the vote seriously, conduct research; make an informed vote if threatened in this manner? While incredibly effective, this may be one tactic that is not feasible in our country.
Another possibility for increasing voter turnout is mandatory. The most commonly cited model for this is the Australian model. By law, all Australian citizens over the age of 18 must register to vote and show up at a polling place on Election Day. A citizen who misses the election is subject to a $15 fine. The Australian mandatory voting law is successful in increasing voter turnout above 90%.
Again as with the social pressure model, the Australian one has some drawbacks when applied to the United States. First question is whether we want to force people to vote. Is there a detriment to having voters who feel that it is a chore to vote, a punishment in effect? Is fining someone for failing to perform the duties of citizenship ok? We have severe consequences for those who do not perform jury duty so I do not see why voting should be very different. Moreover, with our deficit the way it is we could use the extra capital.
The final thing to consider is whether making voting harder might actually increase participation. Would denying people their right get them indignant enough so that they actually perform the act when they had no intention of doing so before? I do not have empirical evidence to support the idea that if people were faced with losing their ability to vote they would be more eager to exercise it. I can only offer the anecdotal evidence that is presented when felons lose their right to vote. Many of them struggle for years to have that returned to them. Maybe voting is a case of you don’t know what you got till its gone.
When people consider ways to increase voter turn out it is surprising to them when they find that making it easier to vote does not appear to have a drastic impact. It is counter intuitive to those who hold the practice of voting sacred that some choose to disdain it so. I believe that until we change the culture surrounding the perceptions of politics and public service we will not see high voluntary turnout in this country. The attitudes attached to it in many corners of our society just make it unlikely that those groups will be willing to put off their lives for the time it takes to do the research and to cast the ballot.