Phil Keisling, Oregon’s Secretary of State from 1991-1999 and currently director of the Center for Public Service at the Hatfield School of Portland State University, wants mayors to be elected in non-partisan elections, held at the same time as general elections.  He is worried about low turnout in partisan primaries held in odd year elections (in the recent NYC mayoral primary, turnout was 22% overall, only 13% among registered Republicans).  He worries that partisan election systems “relegate minority-party and non-affiliated voters to “observers-on-the-sidelines” status while forcing candidates through the same partisan paces that are driving our national politics into the ditch.”  “(E)fficiently delivering core municipal services or revitalizing downtowns” has little to do with the issues that currently animate party divisions in Washington.  Swich to non-partisan elections, Phil argues, to increase turnout, attract young people to the polls, and revitalize trust in government.  (The full argument is here: http://www.governing.com/columns/smart-mgmt/col-wrong-ways-elect-mayors-partisan-odd-numbered-years-instant-runoff-voting.html)

Phil Keisling has a well-deserved reputation as an election innovator for pushing through vote by mail in Oregon.  He advocated for the top-two primary in Oregon.  And he continues to work to improve civic policies and engage young people in government.

But on this point–as on the top-two primary proposed in Oregon in 2008–Phil and I will have to politely disagree.  Let’s not toss out the party baby along with the dirty bathwater, especially if the bathwater is being generated in Washington, D.C., not in our local municipalities.

Phil’s unhappiness with the direction of the national Republican Party may be blinding him to the positive role that political parties can play in structuring politics not just in the United States, but in every democratic political system yet devised by man.

John Aldrich, a political scientist at Duke, famously asks “Why Parties?“, and his answer is that

parties serve to combat three fundamental problems of democracy: how to regulate the number of people seeking public office; how to mobilize voters; and how to achieve and maintain the majorities needed to accomplish goals once in office.

Parties are a “name brand”, according to another political scientist,”providing credible information about how politicians are likely to act in office.”  Parties serve as training grounds for new political actors, recruit candidates for office, and provide avenues for upward political mobility.  Partisanship among individual voters remains the most important predictor of the vote, and helps voters make order out of a bewildering variety of political claims and issues.

Political parties are obviously not a panacea, and political divisions are deeply problematic in America today.

But let’s not cure the disease by killing the patient.  The problem as I see it is that Phil lumps together different institutional forms–most notably closed partisan primaries with general elections–and concludes that all party labels must be a bad thing for turnout and for voting.

There is a good argument to be made for opening up partisan primaries to unaffiliated voters, as many states do, or perhaps having a “top two” or some other “open” system.  It’s not clear that this will result in substantially increased turnout in primary elections, as Phil claims, but it would allow those voters who don’t want to officially affiliate when registering to vote to participate in the primary.

But to leap from there to non-partisan general elections is a leap too far.  Voting in a non-partisan general election, according to Brian Schaffner and Matt Streb, is like watching a football game where the teams aren’t wearing uniforms.  No one knows who is ahead, who is behind, or who to root for.

Non-partisan elections do not increase turnout–they depress it.  Non-partisan election do not result in more-informed voting, but instead they force voters to replace one cue (party) with others (interest groups), and most problematic, they end up empowering incumbents.

Nor is there any guarantee that a party label assures a victory.  Phil makes the unfortunate error of claiming that winning a partisan primary in New York City is tantamount to victory in the general election.  Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Guiliani would beg to differ.

Once we get beyond non-partisanship, Keisling advocates for a number of positive reforms.  Align local and state elections with the federal general elections?  Absolutely.  Experiment with innovations like instant runoff voting, which avoid the need for partisan primaries?  Great idea.

But abandon political parties?  Unless you want to strengthen incumbents and interest groups and weaken voter control, it’s not a good idea.

Some exciting news out of TurboVote–they are partnering with the Pew Center on the States’s Elections Initiatives.

And more exciting for some–TurbeVote is hiring!  Read all the news here: http://blog.turbovote.org/2013/11/05/wanted-talent-for-democracy/

The Carter Center has announced a new elections standards portal: http://electionstandards.cartercenter.org/

According to their announcement:

“The site provides an overview of our work and role in building consensus on an obligations-based approach to election observation and support that is rooted in international human rights law. It also gives direct access to our expanding set of tools, statements and reports.”

Jeff Mapes reports in the Oregonian: http://www.oregonlive.com/mapes/index.ssf/2013/10/secretary_of_state_kate_brown_1.html

Still left untold is the story behind Steve Trout’s departure.

It’s good when friends help friends!  I have been swamped this academic year, as my slow pace of blogging shows.

But this post by Doug Chapin, courtesy of Brian Newby, says in one post what I’ve been trying to tell folks for years.   Placing early voting locations is not as easy as creating a pop up Halloween store.  The combination of a short term lease and high end electrical, Internet, and accessibility needs make them as rare in some counties as Oregon sunshine in November.

Keep that in mind, Daily Kos and others, when criticizing officials.  Scrutinize them, for sure, but make sure you also understand what constraints they may be operating under.

So says a new academic study by the team at the University of Wisconsin.

The study is blogged about in detail at the Fact Tank at the Pew Center on the States and will undoubtedly spark some reaction.  The takeaway point for anyone interested in elections and turnout is that a simple minded rational choice model of turnout is, by itself, simply insufficient to understand voting behavior.  (This piece cites none of the “classic” turnout articles, nor should it.)

I’ve been critical of the Wisconsin approach in the past for failing to discriminate among different modes of early voting (they code no-excuse absentee and early in-person the same way) and, at least in past work, for relying only on data from 2008.  This study doesn’t address the first issue but does expand the universe to include the 2008 presidential contest, a significant advancement.

The study also demonstrates the value of peer-review.  Peer review is criticized because it is slow and deliberate.  But peer review makes it a lot more likely that scholars get to the right answer.  In this case, I’ve seen this paper through a number of versions (including acting as a reviewer), and the impact of peer review is very clear in the final product.

There are other pieces circulating that purport to address this question, including at least one that I reviewed recently showing an opposite result, controlling for the number of early voting locations in each jurisdiction.  This question is certainly not closed, but this piece is going to stand as an important marker in the field.

An early preview of my testimony tomorrow

The secret word for my testimony tomorrow at the Presidential Commission on Election Administration is diversity.  (Alternative secret words may be complexity or heterogeneity.)

Early and Absentee Voting Laws

The rise of early voting has added a new layers of diversity to an already incredibly diverse election system.  As the NCSL’s early and absentee voting law page shows, states have chosen different paths in adopting convenience voting systems.

The result is that voters have increasingly diverged nationwide in how they cast their ballots.  These map  from 2008 (the 2012 data is still incomplete) illustrates the pattern nationwide.

Compare the first map, which displays early voting rates overall, with the rates for voting by mail/absentee voting and early in-person voting (users should be able to click on the first map, then just hit the cursor keys to move between the maps).

Not only is there substantial variation among states and regions, but there are even large county by count differences within states.

ev_map_2008abs_map_2008eip_map_2008

Diversity and complexity characterize the American electoral landscape.  It’s going to be very challenging to come up with recommendations that are specific enough to make forward progress on some of the more challenging issues and also not so general that they are anodyne.

 

Image courtesy of the Pew Elections Initiative

Pew’s Election Snapshot of California (see also here for a PDF) links to a nice graphic showing the dramatic rise in absentee voting in California.

Image courtesy of Heavy.com

Early voting (no-excuse absentee and early in-person) is under consideration in New Hampshire as Gov. Maggie Hansen signed HB521, which establishes a “committee to study New Hampshire election laws and procedures.”

(These are not the only pieces of legislation concerning early voting that was considered this session:

The mandate for the committee under HB251 is fairly broad:

220:3 Duties. The committee shall study all current New Hampshire election laws and procedures and review all options to increase participation including but not limited to solutions to limit lines and wait times in casting ballots and voter registration, public education related to election law, election procedures, early voting, and absentee voting. The committee shall consult with and solicit testimony from the public in the course of its duties.

If it allowed early and no-excuse absentee voting, New Hampshire would join Vermont and Maine as the third New England state allowing these methods of balloting.  However, the state’s chief election officer, Secretary of State Bill Gardner, has already expressed skepticism.   Gardner says that early voting:

(D)iminishes the value of Election Day itself, because when you write stories about people voting and going to places to cast early ballots, when people read two or three more stories about voting, the significance of the one day itself is diminished in a lot of people’s minds.

Secretary Gardner also says that early voting actually decreases turnout: “how can you make it easier and by making it easier, you get fewer people voting…but that’s what the numbers show.”

On Gardner’s first point, I’d like to say that we have research on how early voting diminishes the value of Election Day, but the record is quite thin.

A seminal paper in the field by John Brehm, Wendy Rahn, and Neil Carlson showed that national elections do generate a small increase in “social capital”, shown by post-election increases in things like generalized trust in government, trust in others, and social identification with groups.  However, the cause of the increase was not the act of voting, or psychological engagement in the campaign.  Only mobilization contacts by political parties and candidate organizations directly increased social capital.

The Brehm et al. piece is based on the 1996 election, however, at least two generations ago in terms of elections, election administration, and election reform.  Brehm, Rahn, and Carlson never asked whether or not the mode of voting mattered–for them, an election consisted of mobilization by campaigns, by non-campaign organizations, a citizen’s engagement with the campaign, and the act of voting.

Others, including myself, have speculated that early voting may change the way individuals think about Election Day as a political and social event, but to date, no one has been able to establish any credible evidence in favor or against this hypothesis.  Martha Kropf  has revisited the question using date from 2004 and found that ” pre-Election Day voting has little effect on cooperative behaviors in a cross sectional survey.”  There have been to my knowledge no follow-up studies.

Perhaps this should not be surprising, given Brehm et al.’s original finding.  After all, far from diminishing campaign mobilization, all indications are that early voting increases the length and intensity of campaign activities.

None of this is particularly supportive of Secretary Gardner, but admittedly the research record is thin.

On the second point, however, the record is pretty thick and not at all supportive of the Secretary’s claim.  There is just one study out of the University of Wisconsin that purports to show a negative impact of early voting on turnout.  The study stands nearly alone in the field in showing a negative impact of early voting (some scholars have shown small declines under “forced” vote by mail in small precincts in California and others have shown that this effect can be offset by election advertising by local election officials).   As I have pointed out in the past, the Wisconsin paper is based only on one year’s worth of data (2008), does not discriminate between voting by mail or early in-person, and has not been published or replicated.  Dozens of other articles have shown the opposite result: a small but statistically significant increase in turnout.

The Wisconsin team publicized their findings in a NY Times op ed, and this may be what Secretary Gardner is relying on when he made that statement, but otherwise, I’d say the jury is decidedly out.

Secretary Gardner is exactly right, though, when he notes that New Hampshire already has high turnout, and any voting reform is likely to have marginal effects.

That’s what I find regrettable thus far; the committee has been empowered to “review all options to increase participation.”  If New Hampshire really wants to increase voter participation, they should make campaigns more competitive, make politics more interesting, get citizens more engaged, and raise the educational and income levels of your populace.  Those are the big drivers of turnout.

To borrow from Pew, election administration and reform is designed to make elections accurate, efficient, convenient, and secure.  

I hope New Hampshire considers this broader mandate, and doesn’t artificially limit themselves to voter turnout, or they are likely to be disappointed in the outcome.