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In Which I Attempt a New Metaphor (Simile, Really) Regarding The Impact of Election Laws On Turnout

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screw_with_hammer.jpg

[Image courtesy of Lightmare Studio]

Not long after the New Year, I blogged about the nuts and bolts of calculating voter turnout and discussed why it isn't always a reliable indicator of voter participation across states.

Today, I want to take on the notion of turnout as a way to evaluate the worth of election laws and procedures as well proposed changes to the voting process.

In short, to anyone out there who is preparing to use turnout to support an argument for or against any proposal to change or maintain any aspect of election administration, I have three simple words.

Don't. Do. It.

As any of my political science colleagues will tell you, the math involved in explaining, let alone predicting, turnout is so complicated and wrapped up in so many interwoven variables like enthusiasm, cultural factors, candidate quality - even the weather! - that it is all but unreliable as a measure of anything but how many people voted.

Moreover, to the extent that election laws and procedures do factor in, they are likely dwarfed by the forces above; indeed, the desire to participate (or avoid participation) may lead voters (with the assistance and encouragement of campaigns who need their votes) to adapt to and overcome any perceived obstacles to casting a ballot.

To that end, here's a helpful metaphor - actually, a simile - that highlights the perils of relying on turnout as a measure:

Using election laws to drive turnout is like using a hammer to drive a screw.

It's possible, but it isn't easy and isn't likely to be very effective.

Over the next several months, we are going to see endless debates about whether voter ID / weekend voting / early voting / vote by mail / insert reform here will affect turnout.

Do yourself a favor; when you encounter such debates use the following two-step solution.

  1. Put down the hammer.
  2. Walk away.

Trust me - you'll be glad you did.

1 Comment


  • Perfect summation, Doug! Memorable tool metaphor! Even I know not to use a hammer on a screw....

    Hope all your devoted readers will share your post with their legislative and executive colleagues involved with election administrative policies.

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