Turnout Is X-Factor in Today’s Special Election

 Oregonians will decide the fate today of Measure 101, which provides some of the funding for Oregon’s Medicaid program. Whether it passes or fails will depend a lot of who actually votes in what is shaping up as a low-turnout special election. [Photo Credit: AP]

Oregonians will decide the fate today of Measure 101, which provides some of the funding for Oregon’s Medicaid program. Whether it passes or fails will depend a lot of who actually votes in what is shaping up as a low-turnout special election. [Photo Credit: AP]

Turnout is the X factor in public opinion polling for elections. Survey results of registered voters or likely voters can be wildly misleading if you can’t predict how many people – and what group of people – actually vote.

In today’s special election on Measure 101 that deals with Medicaid funding, all of the conflicting arguments and paid advertising may play less of a role on whether it passes or fails than turnout.

Political observers don’t think turnout will be great, so the referendum’s fate will be decided by whether supporters or opponents are the most motivated to vote.

Two days before election day, only 26 percent of voters had turned in ballots. That contrasts to early balloting in previous special elections that reached 40 percent or higher. Last-minute ballots, which can be dropped off until 8 pm tonight, may buoy turnout to a level closer to special election norms.

Even if turnout reaches 50 percent of registered voters, the election outcome will depend on which 50 percent of the Oregon electorate votes. Supporters of Measure 101 spent $3.6 million compared to $120,000 by opponents. Supporters also mounted phone banks and a campaign ground game. The question that will be answered when ballots are counted tonight is whether that huge advantage outweighed the complexity of the issue people are voting on.   

One of the challenges in any ballot measure is to simplify the proposition. Opponents, who referred a portion of the legislatively approved funding package for Oregon’s Medicaid program as Measure 101, reduced the issue to a “sales tax on health care.” Supporters, who bore the heavier burden of explaining the funding scheme, shrunk their argument to the negative impact on low-income families and children who would be hurt if Measure 101 fails to pass.

Measure 101 opponents argue the legislative funding plan for Medicaid is unfair. Supporters say opponents have no viable alternative funding plan. Both sides have quarreled over facts and false claims. As absorbing as that is for political insiders and people who follow health care issues, it tends to fly by average Oregonians without much notice.

Turnout is more likely to be influenced by voter skepticism about “taxes” or fears over the loss of health insurance coverage for thousands of vulnerable Oregonians.

While Measure 101 is technically a referendum on Medicaid funding, it most likely will be decided at some fundamental level by whether or not a majority of people who cast ballots trust the legislature.

The low pre-election-day turnout suggests Measure 101 hasn’t broadly connected with Oregon voters and generated the kind of emotional fervor required to cast a ballot in a special election for a single issue.

Special elections also can amplify underlying voter trends, such as under-represented voting by lower-income, minority and young registered voters – groups that disproportionately would be impacted by funding cutbacks in Medicaid spending. There also are typical urban-rural voting patterns, which may not hold in this election because a significant number of Medicaid beneficiaries live in rural parts of Oregon.

Last-minute votes cast would suggest voters wanted to wait until the last minute before deciding. Overall low turnout could reflect that many voters didn’t understand the issue well enough, care enough about the issue or take note of a special election. It also could remind people who mount ballot measure campaigns of just what $3.6 million can buy in terms of turnout.