voter turnout

Ease and Convenience Can Help Boost Voter Turnout

Vote-by-mail has demonstrated it boosts voter turnout, especially in typically low-turnout elections. Partisans may argue over which party benefits the most by making it easier for everyone to vote, but it is hard to argue that high voter turnouts are good for democracy and not-so-good for fringe candidates or questionable ballot measures.

Vote-by-mail has demonstrated it boosts voter turnout, especially in typically low-turnout elections. Partisans may argue over which party benefits the most by making it easier for everyone to vote, but it is hard to argue that high voter turnouts are good for democracy and not-so-good for fringe candidates or questionable ballot measures.

Voter turnout can often determine election outcomes. What influences voter turnout? Certainly, what’s on the ballot, the effectiveness of get-out-the-vote drives and how easy and convenient it is to vote.

State election law has no influence on what appears on ballots or on GOTV campaigns. But it has a lot to do with how easy/hard and convenient/inconvenient it is to vote.

Oregon is among the pioneers in vote-by-mail – or what some now call vote-at-home. Oregon adopted vote-by-mail in all federal, state and local elections to spur larger turnouts starting in the 2000 election. Data suggests it has succeeded on that score. Oregon has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the nation.

Two editors of Washington Monthly, which has touted broader use of vote-at-home, commissioned a study to assess the comparative turnout of Colorado’s 2014 general election. This was a midterm election, which typically sees depressed voter turnout, and it was Colorado’s first experience with vote-at-home.

“Analysis of voter turnout in the 2014 midterm election in Colorado shows low-propensity voters, including young voters, significantly over-performed their predicted turnout levels,” the study concluded. Overall turnout was 70 percent of the state’s 2.8 million active registered voters.

Oregon’s turnout for the same general election in 2014 was slightly less than 71 percent, based on data from the Secretary of State’s office. Of interest, almost 449,000 ballots were dropped off on election day, which was less than a third of the total votes cast by Oregonians. More than 105,000 votes were received by county election offices on October 27, a week before election day. Nearly 400,000 ballots were received on the two days preceding election day.

A fair interpretation of those 2014 election numbers is that Oregonians voted when they were ready and either mailed in their ballots or, if they waited until close to the election, dropped off their ballots at county election offices or official drop-off boxes.

Data also shows that vote-by-mail can’t compensate for voter disinterest or elections without high-profile candidate races or emotionally charged ballot measures. The January 23 Oregon special election, with a single ballot measure on the ballot, drew only a 40.3 percent voter turnout. About one-third of total ballots cast were handed in on the day before and day of the election, which reflected voters waiting to hear last-minute arguments and an aggressive GOTV campaign mounted by supporters of Measure 101.

The hotly contested US Senate special election in Alabama, won in an upset by Democrat Doug Jones, also attracted about the same overall 40 percent voter turnout. However, political observers say Jones won because of an unusually high turnout by African-American voters. Exit polls showed there were proportionately more black voters and they heavily favored Jones.

Gilad Edelman and Paul Glastris of Washington Monthly say Democrats should be “salivating” and pushing hard for vote-by-mail in every state to raise voter participation by minorities, the poor and young adults, which tend to vote for Democrats. However, they say Republicans also should be open to vote-by-mail to prevent extreme candidates from either party from dominating low-turnout elections, as Roy Moore did in the GOP primary in Alabama. The authors note that in Colorado’s first vote-at-home election in 2014, Coloradans turned out incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall.

It seems like promoting higher voter participation would be a political no-brainer. But in our polarized times, there is as much or more effort being put into voter suppression measures. Concerns tend to center not on how many people vote, but on who votes. Political conservatives, for example, attribute Democratic support for more liberal immigration laws as a way to boost the number of Democrat-leaning voters.

The Colorado study Edelman and Glastris point to indicates people with no party affiliation and between the ages of 40 and 50 also out-performed voter turnout predictions.

“Vote-at-home offers tangible benefits no matter what your party affiliation is,” they say, “because it relies on old-fashioned pen and paper, it can’t be hacked. While ballots are counted by machine, those machines don’t need to be connected to the Internet, and a paper trail is there for a recount.”

They add, “Since 2000, tens of millions of mailed-out ballots have been cast in Oregon, Washington and Colorado, without a hint of serious fraud or other mischief. And counties stand to save millions of dollars per election rather than paying for poll workers and voting machines or renting voting locations, money that can be used to provide other essential services.”

 

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.

Younger Voters Eclipsed Older Voters in 2016 Election

 The 2016 election marked a milepost as Millennials and Gen Xers cast more ballots than their older counterparts, which should signal new campaign and policy approaches to younger voters who are better educated, more secular and less reliable to cast ballots.

 The 2016 election marked a milepost as Millennials and Gen Xers cast more ballots than their older counterparts, which should signal new campaign and policy approaches to younger voters who are better educated, more secular and less reliable to cast ballots.

The 2016 general election will go down in history for a lot of things, including the first time Millennial and Gen X voters eclipsed older voters.

Based on an analysis of Census Bureau data conducted by Pew Research, 69.6 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 51 voted in the 2016 election. Baby Boomers and older generations cast 67.9 million ballots.

More young people become eligible to vote while older people die or emigrate. While the result isn’t surprising, it marks a milepost in US demography when younger, next-generation voters become a majority, which will influence how political campaigns are focused.

Conventional wisdom is that younger voters lean Democratic. Numbers bear that out, but also is a hint that a chunk of Millennials are more conservative than Gen X or Baby Boomers were at the same age. It also may be true, as evidenced by strong support among younger voters for the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, that younger Democrats are more liberal than their older counterparts.

NPR’s Danielle Kurtzleben reports they may be even deeper polarization among Millennials than previous generations. If so, that could complicate any efforts to lower the volume on political discourse and exert more energy looking for common ground.

In addition to greater political polarization, Millennials overall have fewer religious ties and are better educated. They are less white and more Latino. There is also a question about their motivation to vote. Gen Xers and Millennials as age cohorts outgrew Boomers and older generations before 2016, but voter participation rates lagged behind. Pew found only half of Millennials voted in the 2016 election compared to two-thirds for older cohorts, which may have played a role in tipping the presidential election to Donald Trump.

What bears watching is how Millennials settle in as voters. Exit polls in the 2012 presidential election showed GOP challenger Mitt Romney beating President Obama by 2 percentage points among whites ages 18 to 29 with at least a four-year college degree. Four years later, Hillary Clinton beat Trump among college-educated white people by 15 percentage points. Trump scored well with young white voters who identified as evangelicals or lived in rural areas or states with large white majorities. Clinton’s large margin of votes from younger votes was canceled out when many Millennials lost interest after the presidential primaries or voted for third-party candidates.

Polling Misses Mark in Oregon Presidential Primary

A major public opinion poll conducted before the Oregon primary showed Hillary Clinton outpacing Bernie Sanders by double digits. Actual election results were almost the exact opposite.

A major public opinion poll conducted before the Oregon primary showed Hillary Clinton outpacing Bernie Sanders by double digits. Actual election results were almost the exact opposite.

A well publicized public opinion poll conducted between May 6 and 9 showed Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton leading challenger Bernie Sanders in the Oregon primary by a 48 to 33 percent margin. Actual election results were almost the opposite, with Sanders carving out a double-digit victory.

How could a poll be so out of whack? One frequent reason is failure to account for voter turnout. However, the Clinton-Sanders poll took higher-than-average turnout into account, which showed Clinton’s lead narrowing to 45 to 38 percent. Still wrong, by a wide margin.

The same poll, which interviewed 901 likely Oregon voters, under-predicted Donald Trump’s vote count. He received 45 percent of the GOP presidential vote in the poll, but almost 65 percent of the actual vote. Another big miss.

Telephone surveys have become somewhat less reliable if they don’t include a percentage of cell phone users, which ensures that younger and minority voices are heard. While that sampling flaw might understate the vote in Portland or college towns like Eugene, it doesn’t explain Sanders’ strong showing in rural Wallowa and Lake counties or his dominance in all but one of Oregon’s 36 counties.

Candidates usually do better in states where they campaign in person. Sanders appeared in Oregon four times before the primary. Clinton made no appearances, but did send Bill Clinton to campaign. That’s a hard factor to capture in a public opinion poll, but it is a question worth asking to see if being here breaks someone’s vote one way or another. 

The Los Angeles Times carried a story over the weekend about the intense Democratic push in Oregon to register new voters as Democrats before the April 26 deadline. Many of the new voters were automatically registered as a result of Oregon’s Motor Voter law, but not affiliated with any political party. Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins reported a larger than normal registration switch, which favored Democrats. These factors would have been hard to track in a poll, but they may have been worth asking about to gauge the velocity of a late shift toward Sanders, who predicted he would win if the turnout was large. He obviously knew what he was talking about. 

Polling is a tough business, and it is getting tougher. Fewer people are willing to be interviewed by phone, which means pollsters need to make more calls to achieve a representative sample, which is more costly. Respondent reticence means polls have to take less time and include fewer questions, sometimes the questions that would be useful in improving confidence in poll findings.

While Sanders’ success in Oregon is not a huge surprise, it may be more telling than at first glance. His victory points out the foibles of one-off polls and the political benefits of an intensive ground game. 

More significantly, the results in Oregon show Sanders’ message packs some punch, and not just where you would expect.

Political Polling Validity Becomes Shaky

Political polling is getting less reliable in predicting actual election outcomes. Reasons include the growing use of cell phones, reluctance to participate in telephone surveys and the rising cost of representative research samples.

Political polling is getting less reliable in predicting actual election outcomes. Reasons include the growing use of cell phones, reluctance to participate in telephone surveys and the rising cost of representative research samples.

Political polling doesn't seem to be as spot on as it used to be. Greater use of cell phones, wariness to participate in surveys and unrepresentative samples are among the reasons that political polls and election results turn out differently.

Cliff Zukin, a Rutgers political science professor and past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, writes in the New York Times that "polls and pollsters are going to be less reliable," so voters and the news media should beware.

"We are less rue how to conduct good survey research now than we were four years ago, and much less than eight years ago," says Zukin. "Don't look for too much help in what the polling aggregation sites may be offering. They, too, have been falling further off the track of late. It's not their fault. They are only as good as the raw material they have to work with."

Polling failures have been exposed in the most undetected 2014 mid-term election sweep in which Republicans captures both houses of Congress, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's solid victory in Israel and British Prime Minister David Cameron's relatively easy re-election win.

Cell phones are everywhere and increasingly have replaced landline telephones. Pollsters can find cell phone numbers, but federal law prevents calling them with automatic dialers. According to Zukin, "To complete a 1,000-person survey, it's not unusual to have to dial more than 20,000 random numbers, most of which do not go to working telephone numbers." That adds budget-busting cost to telephone surveys, which in turn lead to "compromises in sampling and interviewing."

Response rates to surveys have declined precipitously. In the 1970s, Zukin says an 80 percent response rate was considered acceptable. Now response rates have dipped below 10 percent. It is hard to draw a representative sample when large chunks of the population refuse to participate. Some cohorts, such as lower income household members, are more unlikely to participate than others, which can skew results. And it takes more calls to achieve a representative sample, which encourages corner-skipping.

Internet polling has emerged as a strong alternative. It is cheaper than telephone surveys and, at least or the moment, people seem more willing to participate, in part because they have more choice in when and how to respond.

But Internet use has built-in biases, too, Zukin notes. While 97 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 use the Internet, 40 percent of adults older than age 65 don't. "Almost all online election polling is done with non probability samples," Zukin says, which makes it impossible to calculate a margin of error. 

The most vexing polling problem is not a new one – determining who will actually vote. Public opinion polling is one thing; trying to predict the outcome of an actual election is another. Pollsters recognize that respondents will overstate their likelihood of actually voting, but have limited ability to identify who will and who won't cast ballots.

Non voting can occur for a mix of reasons – bad weather, lack of interest or political protest. Some registered voters simply forget to vote, especially in non-presidential elections. Less motivated voters vote in top-line races and leave the rest of their ballots blank, making it hard to predict the "turnout" for so-called down-ballot candidates and ballot measures.

Scott Keeter, who directs survey research at Pew Research, says the combination of these factors is shifting political polling "from science to art."

Political polls will continue to be magnets for media coverage, but readers should be aware that the results may not have as much validity as polling in the past.

Tale of the Same Tape

A Florida special election proved fertile ground for political spin masters to see what they wanted to see and say what they hoped people would buy.The Florida special congressional election this week is being touted as the roadmap for Republicans to win a majority in the 2014 general election. Democrats downplay the significance of the GOP victory, pointing to lagging voter turnout. 

It is another example of people with an agenda looking at data and drawing opposite conclusions. This kind of self-vindicating interpretation of outcomes is what gives research a bad name.

Solid research isn't equivocal. Findings may not be conclusive, but they should be clear and objective, especially if the questions are unbiased and the sample is representative.

Polling is hardly necessary to recognize aspects of Obamacare are unpopular, especially among Republicans. Whether or not this antipathy has enough legs to propel the GOP to control of Congress is a far different matter.

For their part, Democrats are huddling behind the issue of income inequality as the "winning issue" in the mid-term elections. And they are warning the Democratic base turnout will decide key races. Duh. Turnout always has an impact on contested political races.

Public opinion polling, and specifically surveys for political candidates, often has a point of view to prove or at least test. Most research has a more objective viewpoint to gain an accurate picture of what a target group thinks about an issue, product or idea. While a politician's career may hang in the balance of a political poll, the stakes are often much higher for businesses and organizations that rely on credible research for a branding strategy, product features or pricing.

The takeaway — don't let spinning of election results and post-election polling color your view of market or public opinion research. When done right, survey data can be a trusted guide for a communications campaign to make a sale or win an election.

The tale of two tapes has only one author — spin-masters. You usually don't find them in the Yellow Pages under professional researchers.