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Voter Turnout and Voting Behavior GOVT 2305. Previously we discussed democracy, elections and the right to vote in the United States. But having the right.

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Presentation on theme: "Voter Turnout and Voting Behavior GOVT 2305. Previously we discussed democracy, elections and the right to vote in the United States. But having the right."— Presentation transcript:

1 Voter Turnout and Voting Behavior GOVT 2305

2 Previously we discussed democracy, elections and the right to vote in the United States. But having the right to vote is one thing. Choosing to exercise it is another, and how people choose to exercise it is still another.

3 In this section we look at those two issues. First, the decision to vote: which we refer to as voter turnout. Click here for another description of voter turnout. Second, the decision who to vote for: which we refer to as voter behavior.voter turnoutClick here

4 Before we go too further, lets discuss The Paradox of Voting. It is simply not rational for people to vote, if one expects their vote to determine the outcome an election. This is especially true for presidential races. We are probably all familiar with people who say their vote doesn’t count, and they are right. And this is a fundamental problem for a democratic republic.The Paradox of Voting

5 As we already know, a stable republic must rest on a rational population, but if voting is an irrational act, there is little reason to expect that a republic can be maintained. This is a fundamental dilemma in democratic republics.

6 Keep this in the back of your mind as we go forward. Despite the fact that a participatory public has been judged essential to the preservation of a republic, the act of voting is a bit irrational. There’s very little chance that one vote will change the outcome of any election. So why do it? People do though, so we will try to determine why. And when they do, people tend to find shortcut methods for figuring out who to vote for. We will look through these and also how the public has voted in recent years.

7 But this line of reasoning only works if one thinks that voting is only about determining who wins. Voting can also be a reflection of a group’s strength. It may demonstrate the ability of a group to hold elected representatives accountable if they pass laws they oppose. But these threats only work if they are backed up.

8 This makes voting rational after all. Political strength depends on who votes, specifically which groups tend to vote, and vote in all elections, including primary elections. This helps explain why certain policies tend to be prioritized more than others.

9 For example: It’s much easier to cut spending on education than Social Security. Why? Because older folks votes at far higher rates than younger folks, this includes primary elections which tend to be low turnout. In 2012 general election turnout for those over 65 was 73%, for those it was 41%. This means that the older population has a better ability to punish officeholders that vote against their interests than the younger population.

10 The concept of primarying - or getting primaried – is based on this ability. A small active cohesive group promises to run opponents to incumbents in primaries if they do not vote in line with that group’s interests. Here are related stories: - Conservative Group Gets Jump On 'Primarying' Republicans In Gun Owners of America Is 'Primarying' the NRA From the Right - Pro-Legalization Congressional Candidate Primarying a Democrat in El Pasogetting primariedConservative Group Gets Jump On 'Primarying' Republicans In 2014Gun Owners of America Is 'Primarying' the NRA From the RightPro-Legalization Congressional Candidate Primarying a Democrat in El Paso

11 And... Primary My Congressman! Primary My Congressman!

12 Office holders take this into consideration when they vote. Can the affected group hurt me electorally? This suddenly makes voting – as a group anyway – very rational.

13 Here’s a recent example as of this writing: Despite the fact that 90% of the population stated support for universal background checks for gun purchases, it was defeated. The reason was that gun rights supporters have demonstrated over time that they are very active electorally and vote as blocs. They can successfully punish officeholders, and have done so in the past. Current officeholders know this and act accordingly.

14 So understanding voter turnout helps us understand which groups in the US have political power and which do not. Think of turnout as muscle. Remember that democracy can be better understood not as rule by the people, but by rule of the participants – the electorate.

15 Let’s look at the first question: Who Votes? And then at disparities that exist within the US population regarding who votes.

16 First, some specifics on voter turnout. Simply stated, voter turnout refers to the percentage of the population that votes. There two ways to look at this figure, VAP and VEP.

17 VAP: Voting Age Population VEP: Voting Eligible PopulationVoting Age Population

18 Another way to look at turnout as a percentage of those who have registered to vote. Some argue that the key to increasing voter turnout is to make ti easier for people to register to vote.

19 Next: Why does voting turnout matter? Because it is assumed to reflect the health of our democratic republic. The more people vote, the stronger the republic, the less they vote, the weaker the republic. Here’s a look at voter turnout over American history.

20 But then again, this is a debatable point. Do people vote because they feel disconnected, or because they are generally satisfied? Click here for an informal list of the different factors which are argued to lead people to vote. These are listed on the next slide: Click here for an informal list

21 - A key issue is at stake - Barriers to voting were low - People were mobilized - A personal contact asked them to - One is from a politically inclined family - People are educated - They believe their vote counts

22 Let’s think about this after looking at the following graph, which shows turnout for eligible voters over time


24 Keep in mind as you look at this graph that suffrage expanded over the course of American history, as did laws related to elections. This reflects different stages of American political history.

25 1788 – 1824: Era of elite politics – 1900: Era of machine politics 1900 – present: Progressive Era and its aftermath.elite politicsmachine politicsProgressive Era

26 Note that turnout for presidential elections is different – generally higher - than turnout for midterm elections. It should also be pointed out that turnout for national elections tends to be higher than turnout for state elections, and turnout for state elections tends to be higher than that of local elections. And turnout in general elections tends to be higher than turnout in primary elections.

27 Note: It is significant to note which elections tend to be low turnout. This means that smaller groups are able to determine results in low turnout elections, most importantly primaries where turnout is sometimes in the single digits. This is especially true when that group is cohesive, passionate and works as single group rather than single discreet individuals.

28 The Tea Party for example. What they lack in numbers they make up in cohesion and action.Tea Party

29 Turnout tends to vary from state to state. Click here for a chart with turnout figures for each state for the 2012 election. Texas is towards the bottom of the pack: 49.7%. Try to figure out why. Think demographics.Click here for a chart


31 And turnout also varies within the population. Differences exist between various groups based on income, education, race and age.

32 Here’s a graph which outlines a variety of differences in turnout.

33 From Daily InfographicDaily Infographic

34 And a few others which focus on specific differences in turnout. Let’s start with race:

35 From The Pew Research Center. The Pew Research Center

36 In 2012 – for the first time – Black turnout surpassed White turnout 66.2% to 64.1%. Question: Will this persist after the Obama presidency is over?Black turnout surpassed White turnoutWill this persist after the Obama presidency is over

37 The continued low participation rates of Latinos and Asians bothers the leaders of those two communities. The projected growth of the Latino community suggests that that group is poised to exert considerable political muscle, but only if it begins to turnout in large numbers. As of 2012 they are 17.2% of the population, but only comprised about 12% of the 2012 electorate. LatinosAsians poised to exert considerable political musclebut only if it

38 From the Pew Research Hispanic CenterPew Research Hispanic Center

39 And now age...


41 ... And a combination of age and education...


43 Generally voter participation increases with age and education. This tells us something about which groups are politically strong and why. Social Security has stronger support in Congress than college grants and loans for the obvious – self interested – reason.

44 Here’s a look at the nature of turnout right now:

45 The US Census Bureau has comprehensive info about voting and registration and registration here

46 For an analysis of the 2012 turnout, click here. And for a full report from the Census Bureau, click here. A few tables from the articleclick here



49 From Pew Research Center: Who Votes, Who Doesn't, and WhyWho Votes, Who Doesn't, and Why

50 Turnout around the world

51 How does voter turnout in the United States compare with turnout in democracies around the world? Not well. We rank second to last according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development


53 There are reasons the US ranks so low. We don’t really make it easy for people to vote. We also tend to place very high burdens on voters. We have many elections with many candidates. This places tremendous requirements on voters. Not all countries do.

54 A general point: Most other democracies are parliamentary, which means that all the voter has to do is vote for a party. The party then assigns seats to party members. In the US – as we know – people vote separately for candidates for specific offices. Since many different positions are up for election, voters have to become informed on each of the candidates instead of just the party. In addition, national and state elections are held every two years, including primary elections. And local elections are often held on odd numbered years. The point is that we have elections all the time, and not everyone wants to vote in all of them.

55 There are arguments that parliamentary systems also encourage turnout because since they allow for multiple competitive parties, people have a better opportunity to vote for their top choice. Remember that in our two party system, the vote for the Democrat or Republican may seem like a compromise to the libertarian or environmentalist. They might not bother to vote at all.

56 Can voter turnout be increased? How?

57 Do we make it too difficult to vote? Many argue that we do.

58 One area of controversy regarding turnout is about voter registration. Do we make it too difficult to register to vote? Before we answer this remember the purpose and history of voter registration. It was one of the progressive reforms of the early 20 th Century designed to weaken party machines. The other being the primary election, the anonymous ballot and civil service reform. When someone registered to vote their vote was tied into a specific location and their participation could be monitored. Instead of roaming from polling place to polling place, one was eligible to vote in one place and once it was recorded that you did, you were done.voter registration

59 You might want to read The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States.The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States

60 Let’s end this section by exploring a cynical thought. Not everyone wants turnout to be high. High turnout does not benefit all candidates or parties. Some might be hurt by high voter turnout.


62 Voter registration – along with the other measured designed to check voting – had some merit.

63 These were intended to break apart political machines, like Tammany Hall.political machines Tammany Hall

64 This did clean up the political process, ballots were much more difficult to stuff. But this then meant that political parties had less incentive to organize people to go to the polls. Altogether these reforms decreased turnout. We saw this in the previous slides that showed turnout dating back to the dawn of the republic.

65 But some argue that the intent of voter registration from the beginning was to suppress the vote. Not all candidates and parties benefit from enhanced turnout. The rule of thumb is that Republican and conservative candidates benefit from low turnout and Democrats and liberal candidates benefit from high turnout. The groups that tend to vote at high rates tend to vote Republican, those that vote at low rates tend to vote Democrat. This leads to the obvious conflict over laws related to turnout.

66 So here’s your conflict: Tighter registration laws are supported by those afraid of voter fraud, looser registration laws are supported by those afraid of voter suppression.voter fraudvoter suppression

67 A quick look at voter registration rules.

68 Registration laws are primarily the responsibility of state and local governments, this includes running the elections, printing ballots and other detail. This can lead to conflict because some states – like Texas - are more inclined to limit than expand participation. When the national government tries to use its power to expand participation, states like Texas claim that it has violated a state’s right to decide for itself how to conduct elections. Specific detail regarding residency etc... can be found in state laws and city ordinances.

69 For a look at each state’s registration laws click here

70 In Texas, voter registration is implemented by each county’s tax assessor and overseen by the Texas’ Secretary of State. We cover the nuts and bolts of this in GOVT 2306.

71 Controversy: Should registration to the vote be federally run? Or should it remain with the states?

72 For some history, click here

73 The constitutional right of states to control who got to vote was asserted in Minor v Happersett, an 1875 case where the Supreme Court denied that the 14 th Amendment’s Privilege and Immunities Clause included the right to vote.Minor v Happersett

74 Many states – including Texas - used their power over access to the polls to prevent some populations form voting at all. A series of court decisions during the middle years of the 20 th Century whittled away at this power. For example: Smith v Allwright.Smith v Allwright

75 The white primary, along with citizenship and literacy tests, poll taxes and other rules were designed to selectively suppress the vote. Voter registration as well.

76 Congress got involved in the 1960s and passed laws enhancing access to the polls. The two most important laws were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of Note that these granted the national government power over the states.Civil Rights Act of 1964Voting Rights Act of 1965

77 Title I of the Civil Rights Act barred “unequal application of voter registration requirements.” Among other things, the Voting Rights Act creates an administrative procedure – preclearance – that allows the national government to intervene if a state passes voting laws that minimize minority strength.

78 The further need for pre-clearance continues to be a subject of debate.pre-clearance

79 More recently, the National Voter Registration Act - AKA: The Motor Voter Act – “required state governments to allow for registration when a qualifying voter applied for or renewed their driver's license or applied for social services.”National Voter Registration Act

80 The national government mandated that states make it easier for citizens to vote. The bill met with fierce resistance. Did the Motor Voter Bill work? Did the Motor Voter Bill work

81 Question: Do state’s continue to try to restrict access by the poor and minorities to the poll? The Brennan Center report The Brennan Center report

82 Current controversy: Voter ID laws: Should people be required to provide state issued photo evidence that they are in fact the person whose name is on the registration list? Voter ID laws

83 Also Same Day Registration Same Day Registration

84 Click hereClick here for state differences in state voter identification requirements.

85 Next section: Voting Behavior

86 Voting behaviorVoting behavior focuses on how people in fact make decisions in elections. There are two specific decisions we will look at. The first is the decision to vote itself. The second is who to vote for. In recent decades, data has been collected to address these questions. We will review some of what has been discovered.

87 Click here to look through blog posts I’ve compiled tagged “voting behavior.”voting behavior.

88 And in order to introduce the general concept. Here’s a flowchart which will determine whether you will vote Democrat or Republican.


90 OK, that’s a bit tongue in cheek, but this chart reports what type of candidates voters are most likely to support, or not.


92 Why do people make these decisions?

93 A quick comment on mental shortcuts – what fancy people call heuristics. Generally, we don’t care to spend an awful lot of time, so we have a tendency to use shortcuts to determine who to support and why. We do this for all sorts of things, and is a topic we discuss more when we look into public opinion and what leads individuals to form opinions as they. heuristics

94 Perhaps its lazy, but it’s a common tendency. It may not reflect how we want people to behave but it’s a good assessment about how they behave. It may also be a consequence of the amount of information the US electoral system requires voter to accumulate in order to make informed votes.

95 Proponents of political parties argue that one of their benefits is that they simplify the voting decision for people in a way that still allows for an informed vote. This assumes that the party can offer a slate of candidates committed to a specific set of policies, which is a dispute we wade into when we cover political parties in a separate set of slides.

96 The general point is that people tend to use shortcuts to decide who to vote for, and we understand voter behavior better if we know what these shorts cuts are.

97 For a better explanation, I’ll defer to the description of voting behavior provided made by the ICPSR (cause they are smarter than me). They point argue that long term and short term consideration enter into voting behavior

98 The long term factors are party identification and general ideological orientations party identification general ideological orientations

99 They are relatively stable. They can also influence what types of message one is likely to accept or reject about the facts related to elections.

100 These are long term because they tap into attitudes that transcend a specific electoral period. If one identifies as a Republican, or a liberal, they tend to do so for a somewhat lengthy period. Orientations can change of course, but not that often.

101 Historically, party identification has been the dominant influence on voting behavior, but this was when party identification was very high. More people call themselves independent than Republican or Democrat. This makes party identification less likely to determine vote choice.

102 The short term factors are : - orientations on specific issues of public policy - general evaluations of the government performance - evaluations of the personal characteristics of the candidates public policygovernment performancepersonal characteristics of the candidates

103 These factors are peculiar to a specific election, and can vary. This is a subject of dispute however because some argued that evaluations of policy, governmental performance and candidates can vary depending on the messages one gets from partisan and ideological sources. For example, the evaluations one might have about a candidate can vary depending on what a strong party identifier is told about that candidate by the party.

104 So the theory is that people have relatively stable identifications with a political party, as well as a relatively stable ideological identification as well, these condition their voting decisions, but that decision can be impacted by the nature of the times, attitudes about government performance and the characteristics of the specific candidates running at a given moment in time.

105 Here’s a look at the nature of party identification and ideological identification over recent years.

106 From the Pew Research CenterFrom the Pew Research Center.


108 Note the rise of independent voters – those who deny affiliation with either the Democratic or Republican Parties. Some argue that these people - swing voters – tip elections one way or the other. Campaign spend lot’s of money identifying who these voters are and what it takes to get their votes.

109 They also spend money ensuring that those who identify with their party do in fact vote. These are called get out the vote drives, or GOTV.GOTV

110 From the Gallup PolFrom the Gallup Poll

111 Notice that ideology is relatively steady. But here’s a twist, just because one identifies as a conservative or liberal it does not follow that they then adopt positions on all issues that a liberal or conservative would adopt. Here is a look at ideological identification by party.


113 Again, while these factors can be steady, their influence on vote choice is moderated by three factors mentioned before. This helps explain why – sometimes – a party identifier might support a candidate from a different party. The issues that dominate attention during a specific electoral cycle might lead one to vote for the candidate of the other party, or that characteristics of one candidate might be more appealing than that of one’s own party’s nominee.

114 People do not change their party identification, but they might vote for the candidate of the other party for a specific election.

115 Sometime this is due to the nature of the times.

116 Generally (but not always) Republican candidates do better during times of external threats – war for example. Those candidates might receive votes from moderate Democrats. This happened for George W. Bush in Generally (but not always) Democratic candidates do better during times of economic hardship. Those candidates might receive votes from moderate Republicans. This happened for Barack Obama in 2008.

117 For recent detail, from the Atlantic: The Types of People Who Voted for Obama The Types of People Who Voted for Obama

118 Some researchers argue that presidential elections results are relatively easy to predict if one simply looks at a variety of factors related to the economy, especially disposable income. If people feel they are doing well economically, they vote for the incumbent, or the candidate who is the nominee of the incumbent’s party.

119 Candidate Characteristics With the rise of modern media communications, especially television, researchers have noted an increased tendency of people to be swayed by the specific characteristics of a candidate apart from their party affiliation.

120 A good recent example was Ronald Reagan The Reagan Democrats The Reagan Democrats

121 Political historians argue that the introduction of television changed how parties conducted their conventions and selected candidates. Visual appeal became more important.

122 Fun Fact: Since the dawn of television, the candidate with the most hair has tended to win every election. See: The Living Room CandidateThe Living Room Candidate

123 A Final Point: Voter Projections

124 A large amount of data is collected about both voter turnout and behavior. These are analyzed and reanalyzed regularly, which has led to a relatively accurate picture of what motivates people to vote and who to vote for. This enters into electoral strategy.

125 Candidates, parties and polling firms all develop statistical models to determine who is likely to vote based on demographic characteristics. Here’s a graph showing the Gallup Poll’s projections for who is likely to vote prior to each of the three most recent presidential elections.

126 Candidates and parties do this to fine tune their get out the vote drives. These are efforts they use to ensure that their supporters make it to the polls. For Democrats this can be especially tricky since their supporters – especially Latinos - tend to be from groups that are less likely to vote than others.

127 The goal of these researchers is to make campaigning less a guessing game than a work of analytics.

128 To wrap all this up: here are some random graphs with info about voter behavior. Follow the links for info.

129 From

130 Population Density Matters

131 Race continues to matter



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