Important new research on using the CPS to study voter turnout

The Current Population Survey’s Voting and Registration Supplement is the gold standard to understand voter turnout in the United States.  The study is the largest ongoing survey of voting participation in the United States, and is used not only by political scientists, election lawyers and civil rights advocates, but is also cited by Supreme Court Justices.

CPS Screen Shot

Michael McDonald  of the United States Election project has been warning for years that CPS turnout estimates were beginning to deviate in worrisome ways from data collected from exit polls, validated surveys, and official election returns.

New research in the Public Opinion Quarterly by Aram Hur and Christopher Achen validates McDonald’s claims.

From the abstract:

The Voting and Registration Supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS) employs a large sample size and has a very high response rate, and thus is often regarded as the gold standard among turnout surveys. In 2008, however, the CPS inaccurately estimated that presidential turnout had undergone a small decrease from 2004. We show that growing nonresponse plus a long-standing but idiosyncratic Census coding decision was responsible. We suggest that to cope with nonresponse and overreporting, users of the Voting Supplement sample should weight it to reflect actual state vote counts.

Important reading for anyone who uses the CPS.

I just received an interesting set of proposals for improving election administration in California, courtesy of California Forward (I have no affiliation with this organization, but the leadership appears to be non-partisan).

Among the ideas they support:

  • California Forward Action Fund (CFAF) supported Assemblymember Mullin’s AB 1135 which expands tools that are used to verify signatures on vote-by-mail ballots.
  • Senator Padilla’s SB 360 will enable California to move forward with the development of new voting systems that reflect today’s electorate.
  • The group is called Future of California Elections (FOCE). California Forward is a member of this group because we believe that modernizing out elections system is a cornerstone critical to restoring a vibrant and responsive democracy in California.
  • California was the first in the country to designate the state’s Health Benefit Exchange as a voter registration agency under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).
  • The League of Women Voters of California is leading a study to develop a Best Practices Manual for Official Voter Information Guides (http://ca.lwv.org/announcement/2013/dec/open-call-voter-information-guides).

A full list of their ideas and proposals is here: http://www.cafwd.org/reporting/entry/year-in-review-voting-and-elections

New research on voting restrictions and African American turnout
Figure 3 from Bentele and O'Brien

Figure 3 from Bentele and O’Brien

An interesting new article by Keith Bentele and Erin O’Brien at the University of Massachusetts, Boston came out in the December 2013 Perspectives on Politics.  Titled “Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies.” It should be of interest to everyone in the political science, law, and policy side of election administration.  (Hat tip to the Monkey Cage, which features a guest post by the authors.)

 

From the abstract:

Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in state legislation likely to reduce access for some voters, including photo identification and proof of citizenship requirements, registration restrictions, absentee ballot voting restrictions, and reductions in early voting. Political operatives often ascribe malicious motives when their opponents either endorse or oppose such legislation. In an effort to bring empirical clarity and epistemological standards to what has been a deeply-charged, partisan, and frequently anecdotal debate, we use multiple specialized regression approaches to examine factors associated with both the proposal and adoption of restrictive voter access legislation from 2006–2011. Our results indicate that proposal and passage are highly partisan, strategic, and racialized affairs. These findings are consistent with a scenario in which the targeted demobilization of minority voters and African Americans is a central driver of recent legislative developments.We discuss the implications of these results for current partisan and legal debates regarding voter restrictions and our understanding of the conditions incentivizing modern suppression efforts. Further, we situate these policies within developments in social welfare and criminal justice policy that collectively reduce electoral access among the socially marginalized.

Another job at TurboVote / DemocracyWorks came across the transom: Data lead on the Voting Information Project. This looks like an exciting opportunity for the right person who wants to take the jump into big data and election administration.

http://blog.turbovote.org/2013/12/12/job-data-lead-vip/

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.

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