The big jump in turnout that wasn’t

Votes are still being counted, but the turnout expert on whom I rely, Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, says that, when the final numbers are in, 2008 will have had about the same level of voter participation as 2004.

Yes, Minnesota led the nation again, and by a really impressive margin. But Minnesota’s 2008 turnout rate was a slight decline from 2004.

Sorry to be a party pooper two days in a row. Blame it on my old friend Gans (who, by the way, was one of the two guys who recruited Eugene McCarthy to run as an anti-Vietnam War candidate against Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, which changed history).

When expressed as the percentage of all eligible voters (Gans has always preached that this is the only proper way to measure voter participation), the voter turnout in the 2004 election was 60.6 percent.

That was a very good number (compared to recent history, but not compared to other developed democracies) and the highest since 1968. Gans says that from what he can tell now, when the final numbers for the 2008 election come in, turnout will be between 60.7 and 61.7 percent.

All of these numbers compare favorably with recent history. The recent low was 1996, with a dismal 51.4 percent. So a turnout of 60 or 61 percent would feel pretty good if not for the expectations of a gigantic boost in turnout. But those expectations were created, which is why Gans titled his study: “Much-hyped Turnout Record Fails to Materialize: Convenience Voting Fails to Boost Balloting.”

Not working
As to the second element of that headline, Gans refers to the changes that many states have adopted over recent years to make it easier to vote, changes like “no-excuse absentee voting” (whereby citizens can get absentee ballots without stating a reason and mail them in before Election Day), early voting (whereby at certain conveniently located polling places citizens can, in person, cast ballots before Election Day) and “Same Day Registration” (where a citizen can both register and vote on Election Day).

Gans analyzed the changes in voter turnout in states that have adopted these convenience voting systems versus those that have not and found, to my surprise, that states that make it easier to vote don’t necessarily get higher turnouts. Gans went further, in a totally unexpected editorial comment:

“This election showed what many previous elections have shown—that the types of innovations adopted in the past several years—particularly early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and mail voting—do not enhance and may hurt turnout… Convenience voting is addressing a real problem with the wrong solutions. The participation problem is, at heart, not procedural but motivational. In a variety of ways, events, politics, leadership, education, communications, and values have damped the religion of civic engagement and responsibility. We will not get that back by treating would-be voters as spoiled children. We need to demand more of our citizenry rather than less. The Democrats liked convenience voting this time because it benefitted them. The Republicans liked it in 2004 because it benefitted them. But democracy was not benefitted. These devices are extremely popular, but popularity is not the same as wisdom and in this case, it is antithetical. It’s time to consider rolling them back.”

Yikes. A tough love approach to non-voters. Anyway, if Gans’ tables are right (and I bet they are), they do seem to validate his big point about motivation versus convenience. For example, he lists the states in the order of their increased turnout from 2004 to 2008. The top five are North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Indiana. Some of these states have adopted convenience voting rules and some haven’t.

But looking at the list, I see states that have large black populations and, perhaps, large numbers of racists, both being groups that might be highly motivated to vote in an election involving a potential (and now more than potential) African-American president.

The list also includes three states — North Carolina, Georgia and Indiana — that have not been considered battleground states over the last several cycles but this year suddenly were. As they moved into that category, voters who normally were spared presidential advertising and big presidential-campaign-motivated get-out-the-vote efforts, suddenly found themselves inundated.

As for our own state, here were the top three states for voter turnout, with the percentages:

1. Minnesota 75.86

2. Wisconsin 70.89

3. Iowa 68.87.

The list is a credit to our entire neighborhood (South Dakota came in sixth and North Dakota 11th) but especially Minnesota, which was number one by an impressive margin of five percentage points. But Minnesota’s rate did drop from 77.21 percent turnout in 2004.

Voter trend
Voter trend
Partisan voting trend
Partisan voting trend

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Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/07/2008 - 11:38 am.

    Working at our precinct, until 5:00 pm we averaged 2.5 votes per minute, and expected a record turnout.

    But at 5:00 the lines faded away, and we had not a single voter between 7:30 and 8:00! Were it not for the 500+ absentee votes that had to be processed, we would have been home by 9:00.

    In the end, the total turnout in our heavily dem precinct was slightly less than in the 2004 election. I was surprised, as were we all I believe.

  2. Submitted by Grace McGarvie on 11/07/2008 - 11:45 am.

    Of the 24% of Minnesotans who are counted as not voting, how many of them have died, moved from that precinct to another – where they did vote on election day – or encountered an unanticipated physical problem on election day that prevented their participation??

    I am suggesting that the % of not voting because of apathy is probably smaller than suggested by the statistics.

  3. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 11/07/2008 - 01:03 pm.


    From the linked report:

    “Turnout is NOT the percentage of those registered who voted… The eligible vote in this report is the number of people residing in the United States who are 18 years of age or over, minus the number of noncitizens residing in the United States who are 18 years of age and over as of November 1. It is an interpolated figure from the 2000 census, based on the methodology outlined below…”

    So voter registrations — and thus voters who die, or move and have multiple registrations — have nothing to do with it.

  4. Submitted by Brian Simon on 11/07/2008 - 01:06 pm.

    Civically, falling turnout is indeed bad news & should be addressed.

    Politically I’m more interested in seeing where turnout numbers have changed. Demographic cross-tabs would be very interesting. Anecdotally, at least, the Dems appear to have boosted turnout among both African Americans and the youth vote. If turnout was flat, that means some other group(s) decided not to vote.

    What are those groups?

  5. Submitted by Eric Black on 11/07/2008 - 04:00 pm.

    Thanks all for excellent thoughts, questions and comments. BSimon, if you click through to the full report, Gans does some more analysis that will help with your questions, although I believe it is speculative. He’s mostly interested in breaking down the vote by party. The surest things we know about 08 vs 04 is that Dem turnout is up and Repub turnout is down.

  6. Submitted by Jeffrey Maas on 11/07/2008 - 04:50 pm.

    First, thanks for sharing and for your excellent work over this past election season. Very informative stuff and it introduced me to some good sites and sources of info.

    As for this study and its conclusions on convenience voting methods, I find it to be interesting, but I’m not ready to sign up for their roll-back because in my experience as an election judge, the problem with limiting the election to a single 13 hour voting timeframe is that it tends to cut participation by those on society’s margins. I always think back to the 2002 general election (Wellstone plan crash) and practically being laughed at by the angry blue-collar voters in the long supper-time lines as I informed them that their employers were required by law to give them time off in the morning to vote. Their response was that while the law may say one thing, they weren’t going to risk a pink slip to test that law. I was struck by that dilemma then, and continue to be struck by it six years later.

    So, I’m wondering if you could get Mr. Gans to speak to a belief I hold, which is that whether or not convenience voting increases turnout, the better reason for enabling it is to broaden the democratic process for those on its margins whose lives are less flexible due to their socio-economic situations.

    I do, however, think he is spot-on about the increase in absentee balloting. I’d guess that it is only a matter of time before abuses are uncovered in this area of election administration, and when it happens, that will inevitably result in cutting back on its increasing availability.

  7. Submitted by Mike Hicks on 11/07/2008 - 07:20 pm.

    Ah, everyone has different estimates of voting-eligible population. I’d been saying that turnout had gone up fractionally, since doing the math with the VEP number on the Secretary of State’s website: 3,741,514 (from Michael McDonald of George Mason University). McDonald had a VEP of 3,609,185 for 2004. There were 2,828,387 votes for president in 2004, giving a turnout of 78.4% by his numbers that year. This year, the presidential race has gotten 2,919,167 votes, which gives me 78.0%.

    Well, unless the Secretary of State website wasn’t updated for 2008 (maybe that’s a 2006 estimate?).

    So, it went down. The only question is, did it go down by 2.5% or 0.35%?

  8. Submitted by Ross Williams on 11/07/2008 - 09:15 pm.

    Gans sounds like a crank. Whatever the accuracy of his data, I would doubt his conclusions. To wit:

    “These devices are extremely popular, but popularity is not the same as wisdom and in this case, it is antithetical. It’s time to consider rolling them back.”

    So we ought to make it LESS convenient for people to vote? Why?

    Oregon is one of the few states in the country, if not the only one, to have and then eliminate same day voter registration. The result, when it was repealed, was a decline in voter turnout.

    Oregon is also the only state to use universal vote by mail for all its elections. The result, when adopted, was an increase in voter turnout. In other words, the results were exactly what you would expect.

    Obviously how motivated people are is a factor in whether they vote. But so is how much motivation is required to vote. Making it easier is not going to reduce turnout.

  9. Submitted by Craig Westover on 11/09/2008 - 08:19 am.

    Just a note of reminder that under the current campaign finance rules, McCarthy would not have been able to run; his initial support came primarily from four donors who, in today’s dollars and under today’s rules, contributed far in excess of the legal contribution limits.

    In light of that, and the self-imposed (and ironically justified)disadvantage McCain had by accepting public financing, let’s not be quick to accept the inevitable “incumbent protection” legislation disguised as “campaign finance reform” that is bound to arise in Congress.

    We need Gene McCarthys with minority views that can challenge power. The only way to take money out of politics is limit the power of government government — when government has less to sell, fewer people will be willing to buy.

  10. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/09/2008 - 08:44 pm.

    On absentee voting:

    It seems it did not take long for a potential abuse of the absentee voting rules to surface.

    But that is only one indication of this only deep possibility for voter fraud in our Minnesota system. It is a too easy way for those who might want to “adjust” elections to distort the process, and there is anecdotal evidence it has happened in Minneapolis.

    As an election judge who has wondered for some time how many deceased people were voting by absentee ballot (caused by our practice of not taking them off the rolls for two election cycles), I have thought often of having some way to check those registers against obituaries since the last election, but have not come up with a satisfactory plan.

    With the aid of computers it would seem we could create an ongoing list, but obituaries often do not include home addresses, to protect the families during the funeral. And no-one would want to disenfrancise a “same name” voter by an election day surprise.

  11. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/09/2008 - 08:51 pm.

    Convenience Issues:

    It seems to me that our present system provides maximum access to the polls, whether employers assist or not.

    You can vote from 7:00am to 8:00pm. If you are in line at 8:00pm you can vote, not matter how long it may take.

    If you are not yet registered, you can register on the day of the election at the polling place, with appropriate evidence of residence.

    If you are going to be out of the precinct on election day, or unable to come for some other reason, you can vote by absentee ballot, even if you are leaving town a month or more before the election.

    At the same time, for the most part, these procedures keep the cost of the polling to one day, and provide a number of protections against voter fraud — two aspects which must also be kept in mind.

  12. Submitted by Ross Williams on 11/11/2008 - 09:49 am.

    Aa I recall, you have to sign an absentee ballot and it has to match the signature on your registration. That is actually more secure than most polling places where signatures are not checked. In fact, it is one of the reasons why vote by mail is actually less susceptible to vote fraud than voting in person.

  13. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/11/2008 - 03:51 pm.


    If you mean that the clerk has to look up your registration card before accepting an absentee ballot, I don’t think that’s correct.

    And in any case, if fraud were the object then just affirming the signature matched would do the trick.

  14. Submitted by Mohamed Ali on 11/17/2008 - 07:54 pm.

    Its great that Minnesota has the highest voter turnout in the country. If we keep making the voting process easier then every state has a chance increase voter turnout.

  15. Submitted by Andrew Ritzer on 11/17/2008 - 08:32 pm.

    I think that it’s great that Minnesota has such high voter turnout. Mark Ritchie seemed to be very passionate about getting folks out to vote, and getting people registered for the 2008 election. In articles that i have read he assured us that there wouldn’t be any voter fraud in this election, and so far so good. As for the senate race and the recount, could we see a comparison to what Kathrine Harris did in Florida during the 2000 election, in regards to stopping vote counting, possibly Senator Coleman taking this matter to court. Im not to sure how the whole process works, but if anyone has some knowledge please share.

  16. Submitted by Abe Dominguez on 11/17/2008 - 09:59 pm.

    Thank you for saying it! People kept stating that this was a unique election on all levels, and it was not. It was practically the same as last time, and (like you said) it’s not about making voting easy, it’s about motivating the eligible possible voters to turn out. Yes, thank you, thank you.

  17. Submitted by Cally Quist on 11/17/2008 - 10:48 pm.

    It’s possible that the ability to vote early and absentee has helped people, but it is also possible that it also complicates voting. The more options might over complicate a simply procedure. If someone has little confidence about voting, it may seem difficult to figure out each procedure. Same-day voting is less complicated, as voters are able to simply turn up at the polls. There is also more motivation needed to send in an early ballot or absentee ballot as opposed to being able to register and vote on the same day.

  18. Submitted by jason Laackmann on 11/17/2008 - 11:13 pm.

    I personally feel that election day in a presidential year should be a national holiday. Most businesses should be closed. This would give people a reason to vote and less excuses. If they have the entire day off of work or school, they should have time to vote. There also would not be such huge lines during lunch hours because people could go to the polls when ever they want.

    Also, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa are the top three voting states. Do you think this has anything to do with the upper mid-west value system as far as political engagement? There is a much greater impact of people here as far as land and farming. Does that come into play?

  19. Submitted by Jake Aug on 11/18/2008 - 03:12 am.

    I had previous been hearing that the youth vote had increased this year, but not proportionally. This article has certainly inspired me to doing a bit more digging to see what fluctuations actually occurred. Also, I am curious what tangible practices Gans or Black would suggest. Personally , outside of changing the civic mindedness of this nation, I believe that recreating a holiday centered around elections could help. This could assure that people are more likely to have the day off, and possibly re-instill some national/civic pride at the same time. It could obviously also backfire and be an under appreciated American holiday, like so many other that is exploited altogether.

  20. Submitted by Brett Shay on 11/18/2008 - 04:22 am.

    Im happy that this election motivated and engaged pople of all ages, but when it came Minnesota, voter turnout was around its usual numbers. I think negative campaign ad’s and lack of trust in politicians has caused alot of heated discussion and partisanship, but it still didnt get people out to the poll’s. The person to get people to vote in huge numbers is the person thats gets people to vote for them, instead of having people vote for the candidate who seems less evil. Candidates like Governors Bobby Jindal and Tim Pawlenty are great examples of this Ideal.

  21. Submitted by Zach Krumwiede on 11/18/2008 - 09:03 am.

    I was pretty surprised after reading this article, I’m not going to lie, I think I like most Americans just assumed that with all the hype that Obama had behind him and all the youth that he was getting charged up to vote that voter turnout would be mind blowing. I guess my question would have to be where did all these people go? Who were these people that were supposed to make this election the biggest one ever? Or if there actually were an abnormal amount of young people voting this year, what happened to all the people that must have voted in previous elections? I do like the idea that was previously mentioned about making presidential election day a national holiday, although, like Jake warns this could turn out to be a huge backfire with people just taking advantage of another day off of work.

  22. Submitted by Donnarose Storer on 11/18/2008 - 09:12 am.

    Thank you for your article, I found it very informative and quite surprising. With all of the get out the vote efforts that were going on in Minnesota and all across the country, why do you think voter participation was relatively the same in Minnesota when compared to the 2004 election?
    Also, you mentioned that Ganz analyzed changes in voter turnout in states that have adopted more convenient methods of voting, and to your surprise it did not necessarily increase turnouts. What are some ideas that you think could help increase turnout?

  23. Submitted by Nathan Barrett on 11/18/2008 - 09:34 am.

    You Know it really surprised me to hear that the people coming out to vote went up so little. In the weeks coming up to the election I heard so much about the youth coming out to vote and It didn’t really seem that was evident in the percentage of those voting.

  24. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/18/2008 - 11:35 am.

    In our precinct, with about 2,400 voters registered at the start of the day (about the same number as in 2004), we had about 300 same day registrations.

    Young folks voting for the first time were well represented in the new registrants, but so were old folks, some clearly new citizens and others pretty clearly needing help to get to the polls.

    I don’t know why so many of the original 2,400 chose not to vote. As our community is aging, it may be that many of them died in the intervening four years. Or it may be that many had moved out of the precinct due to the mortgage problems we are seeing. But I really don’t know.

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