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.”
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.