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New Report Says 2012 Presidential Primary Turnout Down; Should Election Geeks Worry?

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[Image courtesy of bipartisanpolicy]

A new report by the Bipartisan Policy Center and Curtis Gans at the Center for the Study of the American Electorate finds that turnout in the 2012 Presidential primaries "slumped to the lowest level since presidential primaries proliferated in 1972."

Based on the turnout data, the report suggests that "between 95 and 100 million eligible American citizens will not vote in November."

That's obviously a big number, and one which should concern any American who believes in the idea that democracy gives individuals a voice in the nation's future.

But should it concern election geeks? More particularly, should those women and men who are directly responsible for conducting elections (and those of us who care about them) feel some sense of responsibility for voter turnout, good or bad?

As I have suggested before, I think the answer is no:

[T]o 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.

This is by no means a majority view; many election officials (especially those in high-turnout states) tend to view participation as a valuable metric of the health of the election system and thus believe that turnout is an indicator of how well the election administration system is (or isn't) working in a given jurisdiction.

I'm on board with the first part - that turnout levels measure the nation's enthusiasm for democracy in general and more specifically the current political climate - but I don't think the second part follows logically or is even appropriate.

America's system of election administration is designed to ensure three things, whether turnout is 10% or 100%:

  • + that every eligible American who wants to has an opportunity to participate;
  • + that every voter can cast a ballot that reflects his or her choices; and
  • + that each ballot is counted as it was intended to be cast.

Obviously, administrative challenge for election officials increase as turnout does (especially when turnout is uncertain, as in Anchorage earlier this year), but that is simply part of the job.

The Gans report should make anyone who cares about American democracy look into the mirror and think about how our current political process and public dialogue are contributing (good, but mostly bad) to voter turnout.

I do not, however, think turnout should be used to evaluate the nation's election administration system or the people who run it. It simply isn't fair to make them responsible for voter turnout - which they can't control - when their hands are more than full with the challenges associated with serving the voters who actually do decide to participate in the system.

4 Comments


  • Are you arguing even against advocating reforms like same-day registration for the purpose of increasing turnout? You point out, correctly, that election administration in the US is not designed to ensure high turnout. Some would argue this itself is a major defect of our system. This is not an attack on those who are "directly responsible for conducting elections" (although it may be an attack on partisan officials at the top of the process), but rather a critique of the system as a whole. While it is clearly true that factors other than election laws and procedures have effects on turnout, I think you are wrong to state a blanket opposition against efforts to raise turnout through institutional changes to election administration.

  • You misunderstood my point - I'm in favor of high turnout, but I don't think low turnout is a function of poor election administration, nor do I think "fixing" election laws will make a difference. I'm not opposed to improving turnout through institutional changes - I just don't think it works.

  • Very good piece. I very much agree with you about turnout levels, except in isolated cases, not reflecting election administration. Thirty years ago, there were election administration barriers (and more election law barriers), but that's not the case now.

  • There is no doubt that institutional barriers to turnout were higher 30+ years ago, but I'm not sure I understand why one would say that further institutional changes would not work. It is clear that EDR raises turnout, though one could argue about the extent and significance of the increase. Longer early voting periods, greater access to absentee ballots, legal provisions for counting of provisional ballots, and other administrative rules all make a difference, even if only at the margins. In state and local elections, whether these contests are held concurrently with national elections obviously has strong effects on turnout, as do restrictions against partisanship in down-ballot races, etc. More broadly, if we simply institutionalized voting as a civic duty in this country it would presumably increase participation. I don't mean to discount the motivational aspects of turnout, but it seems to me you may be discounting, or thinking too narrowly about institutional factors. Again, I return to your list of the three things that US election administration is designed to do, and note that ensuring high participation is not on the list. I'm basically saying that it should be.

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