Easier Voting and Turnout

Via TPM: Why Voter Turnout In Oregon Is Incredibly High

Average voter turnout across the country was horrible during this year’s midterms: about a third of those eligible to cast ballots did so

[…]

But turnout surpassed 50 percent in a handful of states: Maine, Wisconsin, Colorado, Alaska, Minnesota and Oregon. During each election over the past 10 years, these states have often been among the top performers.

While the dynamics of voter turnout are complex, the following is worth noting:

The states with consistently high turnout tend to make it easy to cast ballots. Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin allow voters to register on Election Day. Colorado, Oregon and Washington state hold elections exclusively by mail. Washington often has high turnout but was closer to the middle of the pack this year at 41 percent.

This observation inspires me to note the following:  if one values representative democracy, then one ought to want to increase voter turnout (because the root purpose of elections is to tap into the preferences of the population).   If, however, one likes rules that helps one party’s voter base over the other, one needs to evaluate one’s commitment to representative democracy.

Indeed, given that we Americans love to act as if we both invented and perfected democracy, then one would think we would be doing a better job of living up to that self-vision (of, self-delusion) given that there are known ways to improve voter turnout (both in international comparisons, but also inter-state comparisons as noted above).

(A timely political observation:  if one was offended by Gruber’s “stupidity” comments and yet is happy with low voter turnout because one is glad that “low information voters” are not participating, then one needs to reevaluate one of those positions).

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. James Joyner says:

    I don’t think there’s any question that we make voting inconvenient, especially for hourly workers. And it stands to reason that making voting more convenient would make voting more likely.

    As the quoted piece notes, Oregon is probably not a great example, in that it’s an affluent, historically engaged state and had some highly controversial ballot measures to gin up voter enthusiasm. They also had a governorship and US Senate seat on the line, albeit neither of them nailbiters.

    Not to go all superdestroyer here, but “Maine, Wisconsin, Colorado, Alaska, Minnesota and Oregon” all happen to be very white states, which would tend to lead to high turnout anyway. Of course, there’s a chicken/egg problem here: Do they have easy voting because it would be harder to suppress voting? Or because they have no desire to suppress voting since they’re all on the same team, so to speak?

  2. superdestroyer says:

    Of course, it helps that the states with the best turnout are also some of the whitest sates in the U.S. and the data has shown that whites are better at turning out for off year elections. The mailing in an interesting idea but if Oregon is the example, then mail ballot may result in irrelevant elections where no one will be voting for any competitive race.

    In long run, it will probably not matter. Given the demograhic changes and the gerrymandering on districts, there will probably be so few competitive elections in the future that what the ballot system used will be pointless. A better question is what was the turnout in the Democratic Party primaries in Oregon and Washington since those are the real elections and the general election is just a rubber stamp election.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    The vote by mail in Oregon was initially started to save money and it does.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:

    “Maine, Wisconsin, Colorado, Alaska, Minnesota and Oregon” all happen to be very white states, which would tend to lead to high turnout anyway. Of course, there’s a chicken/egg problem here: Do they have easy voting because it would be harder to suppress voting? Or because they have no desire to suppress voting since they’re all on the same team, so to speak?

    They make voting easy because they don’t have an easily-victimized minority population whose votes they want to suppress in order to maintain a grip on power.

  5. @James Joyner: Indeed, as I noted in the post (which is a quick pick, after all) that the issue is complex (and I realize that I am being a bit didactic as well).

    Still, there are a lot of things that could be done to make voting easier, but we refuse to do them (and, further, have recently gone the other direction in some jurisdictions).

    (In re: SD, right on cue…).

  6. @James Joyner: Also:

    had some highly controversial ballot measures to gin up voter enthusiasm. They also had a governorship and US Senate seat on the line, albeit neither of them nailbiters.

    This hits on a recent hobby horse of mine: competitive elections do, in fact, increase participation. And one of the main reasons we have lousy participation rates (especially in mid-terms) is because the races are overwhelmingly noncompetitive (which, to me, is a far bigger problem than is turnout).

  7. Gustopher says:

    A better question is what was the turnout in the Democratic Party primaries in Oregon and Washington since those are the real elections and the general election is just a rubber stamp election.

    Washington has had several recent Governor’s races come down to trivial differences. 133 votes in 2004, and less than 5% in 2008 and 2012. The 2010 Senate race was also very close.

    I don’t know much about Oregon, but you’re flat out wrong about Washington.

  8. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    This hits on a recent hobby horse of mine: competitive elections do, in fact, increase participation. And one of the main reasons we have lousy participation rates (especially in mid-terms) is because the races are overwhelmingly noncompetitive (which, to me, is a far bigger problem than is turnout).

    I often wonder what this country would be like if we apportioned congressional districts and electoral votes based on the number of voters over the past few elections rather than the population.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: We don’t have an Oregon counterfactual, obviously, but that’s my suspicion. The lack of an easily-defined “Other” makes equanimity easier.

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yup. Most of the races themselves were fairly noncompetitive, going easily for the incumbent. It seems even Oregon gerrymanders safe Republican seats. (Although, in fairness, the elected Republicans may just be popular.) But having something real at stake in the referenda matters.

  10. PJ says:

    @James Joyner:

    Not to go all superdestroyer here, but “Maine, Wisconsin, Colorado, Alaska, Minnesota and Oregon” all happen to be very white states, which would tend to lead to high turnout anyway.

    The median turnout in states which, according to the 2010 census had 80% or more “whites, alone, not Hispanic or Latino” and no election day registration: 36.2%.

    The median turnout in states which, according to the 2010 census had 80% or more “whites, alone, not Hispanic or Latino” and election day registration: 48.8%.

  11. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    I think you’re missing one particular point in the delusions vision of some cohorts:
    representative democracy happens only when my party is in power. Other sorts of government are mostly unrepresentative in that they listen to the voice of minorities, and others whose opinions are deleterious to democracy.

    What point is there in listening to those who want to destroy my way of life?

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    We don’t have an Oregon counterfactual,

    In a way, we do. Look at the # of voting machines per capita in minority majority precincts and the # of voting machines per capita in majority white precincts.

  13. Ron Beasley says:

    @James Joyner: James, I have to disagree with you here, Oregon has 5 congressional districts. The districts are very logical, Geographically the eastern 2 thirds of the state is largely libertarian/Republican but only represents 20% of the population. The other four districts are west of the Cascades and two of those are reliably blue while 2 are purple. The problem for the Republicans in those two purple districts is they keep nominating “fringe” candidates.

  14. Scott says:

    There was an interesting article in this morning’s San Antonio Express-News. San Antonio had lower than state average turnout. Two items stood out: only 3.9% of the total were 24 years and under and, of the 40 provisional votes (due to lack of ID), only 3 voters followed up after election day.

    On the provisional voting issues, the low followup can be attributed to a couple of factors: 1) If the margin of win is sufficient, it doesn’t provide much incentive to followup. 2) It would be physically extremely inconvenient to follow up with an ID, and 3) the provisional voters may not actually be eligible to vote.

  15. Trumwill says:

    I didn’t vote in ’14 for the first time since I turned 18 because of some mix-up at the DMV and a lack of diligence on my part (my registration card arrived five days after election day). First time I’ve ever missed an election, and first time I’ve ever actually been in one of those rare competitive congressional districts. I could have registered same-day where I previously lived, but not here. Ultimately, though, it’s my own dang fault. Requiring someone to register beforehand doesn’t seem overly burdensome, given the many ways we have to do it. Same-day registration gave Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura.

    Fortunately, I maintain my consistency by not being outraged by what Gruber said about voters.

    I view reform to boost turnout on an issue-by-issue basis. Largely, it’s up to you to vote.

    I very much favor whatever we can do it cut down on lines. Some of what we see on election day is pretty disgraceful.

    I don’t like Vote By Mail because, while I am not very much worried about fraud potential for in-person voting, I fear someone will figure it out for vote-by-mail if it goes national. (I don’t like voting machines due to the same concerns.)

    Early voting doesn’t actually improve turnout, though interestingly enough it is one of the things that I can support on a very limited basis. Basically, you vote the weekend before or you vote on Election Day. I think a lot of states go too far here (and I think that might be one of the things that paradoxically hurts turnout.

    I’d also be open to moving election day to Saturday or declaring election day a national holiday. I think “three days to vote” might be better than the former, though, and I think that the latter might be a good idea on its own merits whether it increases turnout or not. (The same goes for more competitive elections, though that’s a bigger question.)

    But if you want to vote, vote! We shouldn’t make it unduly burdensome. Despite what I say above, I am actually somewhat ambivalent about same-day registration, but if you don’t register that’s on you (me, in 2014). If you don’t vote, that’s on you. If you’re a politician that can’t motivate people to vote, that’s on you. Elections are held once every two years.

  16. @Trumwill: My position pretty much boils down to this: it is possible to have everyone automatically registered with citizens only having to re-register when they move. We know this is possible because it is done in other parts of the world. So while on the one hand I understand the “if you want to vote, do it” the fact of the matters if that if we value this mechanism by which the citizens communicate with government that we ought to bend over backwards to facilitate that communication.

  17. Ron Beasley says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Here in Oregon you are required by law to notify the DMV when you move. Your voter registration is automatically updated when you do so.