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Paging Dr. Hawthorne: Did Controversy Boost Colorado Inactive Turnout?

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[Image courtesy of Harvard Business School]

One of the running dramas in election administration this fall has been the dispute between Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler and several county clerks about whether to mail ballots for the November 1 election to "inactive" voters who did not cast ballots in 2010.

The story got even more interesting on Thursday, when figures released by the Secretary of State suggested that turnout of inactive voters in counties where such voters got ballots nearly doubled over 2009. Mind you, inactive voters weren't exactly beating down the doors; their turnout was about 5.5%, as opposed to 2.93% two years ago. Moreover, the increase wasn't uniform - turnout was up only modestly in Denver and actually declined in Custer. Also (not surprisingly), Pueblo County's clerk disputes the state's figures, saying his office got nearly three times as the ballots from inactive voters as was reported. The Denver Post has a nice graphic of the data here. UPDATE: Pueblo's clerk has revised his estimates and is now agreeing with the Secretary's figures.

While the explanation for the increased turnout may lie with the characteristics of voters or the content of the ballot - the stuff of political science and outside my expertise - I wonder if something else wasn't at work.

In particular, I wonder if media coverage of the disputes didn't raise the election's profile for inactive voters, making them marginally more likely to respond when their ballots arrived. This is a variation of an phenomenon in research known as the Hawthorne Effect, whereby subjects in an experiment alter their behavior simply because they know they're being studied.

In this case, inactive Colorado voters who might have otherwise overlooked the 2011 vote may have seen or heard coverage of the controversy and been looking for their ballots in the mail. The fact that the dispute was framed in partisan terms may also have raised the visibility of the vote for inactive voters who strongly identify with a particular point of view.

Either way, it's worth asking whether the Colorado ballot controversy can teach us anything about how voters learn about elections and decide to participate. Here's hoping we get more data in the near future to help us dig a little deeper.

1 Comment

  • I've also seen reporters cause an inverse shift in behaviours. Learned helplessness can be the result when a candidates' supporters in late-voting states like California, Hawaii, and Alaska, courtesy of aggressive poll reporting plus the electoral college, realize that there's no way their cause will be successful... and so the voters stay at home.

    This is only one example in which these factors impact voter behavior, but I love it. Great stuff.

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