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electionlineWeekly on Low (No) Turnout: "What if you throw an election and no one shows up?"

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The big (non-political) story in the last two primary election weeks has been the overall low turnout at the polls. electionlineWeekly's Mindy Moretti takes a look at what that means for election officials:

What happens if you hold an election and no one shows up? Well that's what happened recently at one polling place in Sonoma County, California.

The Rohnert Park precinct on the Sonoma State University campus saw not one voter on June 3. Not one.

"Maybe a couple of people came by to drop off mail ballots, but we didn't have a single voter," Gloria Colter, assistant registrar told The San Francisco Chronicle.

This is of course an extreme, but as we prepare to hit the halfway point in the 2014 mid-term election cycle, turnout has been abysmally low with some states and the District of Columbia hitting record low numbers.

Obviously there is a litany of reasons for why voters don't show up during non-presidential years, but what impact does low voter turnout have on elections officials?

"Our staff understand the election trend and anticipated turnout going into the election. Having this understanding helps keep everyone's expectation in line with the work load," said John Gardner, assistant registrar of voters of Solano County, California.

In fact many elections officials said that they use the opportunity of low-turnout elections as training for the future.

"The good part of a lower turnout election is that it provides some freedom for staff to participate in parts of the process that they wouldn't see in a high turnout election," Gardner said. "This helps us work cross training into both line level staff and supervisors.  Additionally it provides some room to evaluate and improve upon processes and technology to help us perform better in a heavier turnout election."

In Marion County, Indiana where turnout was 7.96 percent, which was lower than expected, Clerk Beth White noted that whether turnout is large or small, conducting the election is all in a days work for her staff.

"My election board staff works extremely hard and I am very proud of their efforts. They are a dedicated team of individuals who understand that whether 7 percent or 70 percent of voters turn out, everyone deserves a positive Election Day experience," White said. "They are committed to training poll workers, opening the polls on time, and tabulating results in a timely manner no matter the turnout."

While turnout might not affect morale, it can have financial impact.

"Obviously, if we plan for higher turnout elections and are not able to utilize resources that have to be pre-paid, then we have spent taxpayer dollars unnecessarily," said Maggie Toulouse Oliver, Bernalillo County, New Mexico clerk. "However, under a vote center model of election administration, we are able to scale up when necessary, and in some cases scale back, giving us greater flexibility and the ability to save resources when possible. "

Overall turnout for the 2014 Primary Election in Bernalillo County was 16.5 percent that was slightly lower than Toulouse Oliver expected but, she said, not surprisingly low.

But why is it so bad?
Some, like Michael P. McDonald, associate professor at George Mason University, have argued that turnout isn't really as bad as it seems because the turnout calculation is an "artifact of poor measurement."

McDonald argues that voter turnout should actually be measured by eligible population. However, elections officials and academics tend to think turnout differently.

Elections officials look at overall registered voters to determine turnout and therein lies a problem as well because many states struggle to keep accurate voter rolls.

"We do think this has an impact," said Valerie Kroger, spokeswoman for Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson. Overall Indiana had a 13 percent turnout. "We are currently in the process of updating our voter list, which will give us clear data on turnout numbers in future elections."

And it's because of a "poor measurement" that during this week's Virginia primary, City of Falls Church Registrar Dave Bjerke tweet out turnout percentages based on active and inactive voters.

"Most 'inactive' voters are no longer part of our electorate but we cannot, by law, remove them without going through these procedures. Therefore their registration is included in our total registration numbers," Bjerke said.

"However, we think that is an inaccurate calculation for turnout. Voter registration is a constantly moving train as our society is becoming ever more mobile and updating a voter's registration may not be a voter's priority. Therefore, we think the population of "Active" voters is a much more accurate measure of the actual voter turnout for a given locality."

Some believe too that the constant changes to election procedures dictated by partisan legislatures has hampered turnout.

"...[I]t causes confusion for voters because the laws are introduced and discussed in the media, if passed, they are normally challenged which means they might be suspended, whatever the decision, it is normally further challenged in the courts, and so on and so on. This back and forth tends to lead to mass confusion among voters, especially among groups that are not the most consistent voters," said Kelly Ceballos, director of communications for the League of Women Voters.

"It's likely that these rules have also kept voters away because they lack the necessary documentation or the voting option they would normally use is no longer available, impact during the primary season is likely not that high. We expect to see greater impact during the general election."

Is it fixable?
Even in places where voting is about as easy as it can get -- Oregon with its vote by mail for instance -- turnout has been low.

Overall turnout in Oregon was 35 percent, which was one of its lowest turnouts, but as Tony Green, director of communications for the secretary of state's office, it was still higher than many other states.

"Vote-by-mail has kept Oregon's turnout at or near the top in primaries compared to other states," Green said. "A big factor that no one can control is the excitement that the candidates generate."

Ceballos of the LWV said there are simple things too that local elections officials can do to help boost turnout.

"They can place polling places in accessible locations in relation to public transportation...and on college campuses. They can create and support websites that are user friendly for their constituents," Ceballos suggested.

Providing voters with as much information as possible was also a suggestion from Ceballos and Toulouse Oliver agreed.

"My personal belief is that ensuring that voters have information and tools available to them to make voting decisions about how, where and when to cast their ballot can lead to increased turnout.  This belief has certainly been borne out anecdotally, but also statistically by certain measures," Toulouse Oliver said.

"Widespread advertising of the election and how to obtain election information, providing easily accessible and customized voter information on the Internet, and providing ample customer service goes a long way to reducing barriers to the ballot box, making voting easier and more accessible.  As a result, we may see increased turnout, because the negative impacts of voting on time, information, and resources to the voter are greatly reduced."

Ultimately though, the show must go on and to a one, the elections officials we spoke with said, regardless of turnout predictions, the law, pride in a job well done and a civic responsibility makes them get up and ready for one voter or hundreds of thousands.

"Regardless of turnout, we are required by law to find those 3,000+ poll workers, offer early voting options, maintain election equipment to serve Marion County's 600 precincts, and otherwise conduct a successful election," White said.

"Elections in Marion County cost around $1 million dollars each no matter how many voters participate. I want voters to come to the polls out of a sense of civic duty, but if that doesn't resonate with them, then I want them to come out and make use of how their tax dollars are being spent!"

This last point is one that often gets lost; most residents are taxpayers whether or not they vote - and keeping an eye on the bottom line (and not just the polling place line) is increasingly a priority for elections officials nationwide. We could have a larger philosophical discussion about whether it's a waste to spend money on low turnout elections, but whether or not you think it is, it's clear that low turnout makes election spending at every level far less efficient - and effective - than it could be.

Thanks to Mindy for this article and for everyone in the field who shows up on Election Day whether or not voters do!

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