Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Hawaii’s election obsession: low voter turnout

… if you actually go through the numbers and try to calculate who would win if everyone voted, there is little evidence to suggest that the winners would change.

by Larry Geller

Post-election remarks in the media on Hawaii’s low voter turnout are almost an obsession.

But why?

The more affluent vote and the less affluent don’t.  Ok, but does that actually matter, and how much?

Nationally, Democrats claim that higher voter turnout favors them, and they beat the drums to get out the vote. The national organization Acorn ran massive voter registration campaigns among minorities and so was seen as a threat by the Right. During the recent Acorn scandal Republicans salivated as Acorn was successfully framed then defunded then disbanded.

The alternative media report Republican efforts to disenfranchise voters after each national election. Typically the targets are minorities.

Probably targeted manipulation does have effect, but the laments of low voter turnout don’t involve strategic intent. It seems that many Americans just don’t vote, for whatever reason. Hawaii is very much in line with that trend.

On a national scale research has shown that those who don’t cast ballots would have voted pretty much along the lines of those who did. In other words, it doesn’t make a difference.

Every year, million of dollars and thousands of hours of campaign efforts are put into mobilizing voters. And before almost any close contest, most of the actors involved are likely to cite turnout as the critical factor in the outcome. As one recent Gubernatorial candidate proclaimed, “If we have a big turnout, I’ll win” (Canedy 2002). Yet, despite the almost universal acceptance of the importance of turnout among political practitioners, there is very little empirical evidence demonstrating that turnout matters in American elections. In fact, research on recent American elections has usually concluded that in the end turnout is not really a problem for American democracy.

“Voters are virtually a carbon copy of the citizen population… demographic biases do not translate into discernible overrepresentation of particular policy constituencies”. In other words, voters and non voters may look very different but they do not think all that differently. Second, if you actually go through the numbers and try to calculate who would win if everyone voted, there is little evidence to suggest that the winners would change.  [p. 4, Turnout Matters: Voter Turnout and City Spending Priorities Zoltan Hajnal University of California, San Diego Jessica Trounstine University of California San Diego,]

Early in the paper (p. 5) the authors admit that due to lack of research, “the question of whether or not turnout matters at the local level remains largely unanswered.”

The UCSD paper argues that turnout does matter, on a local scale, where turnout rates are significantly lower than for national elections. They argue that the chances of skew are greater with much lower turnout (citing some local contests that fail to draw even ten percent of eligible voters). Also, they argue, when the voter turnout is low, local spending is concentrated in areas that favor those who voted, that is, the privileged classes.

In Hawaii, the argument that a higher voter turnout would influence decisions on health services, public housing or welfare, which the authors depend on, doesn’t ring true. When these issues come before the state legislature it’s not unusual that the testimony is confined almost exclusively to advocates or stakeholders.

Education is a another example. Complaints about Hawaii’s poor educational system are common and frequent, but I noted that when Act 51, Hawaii’s school reform law that implemented (among other things) the weighted student formula giving more spending authority to principals was heard at the Legislature, few parents showed up to testify.

Similarly, many voters skip checking off the Board of Education choices on their ballot.

Yet the state continues to support its educational system. Privileged classes don’t benefit because they may have voted or testified.

While local government spending directly influences all of us, it’s not clear how this is linked to voting turnout. On major expenditures such as rail transit, the projects are rammed through regardless of electoral preference.

Reading this and other research, it’s hard to say just why low voter turnout remains a perennial topic of conversation.

In Hawaii, we have lots of sun, great surf, low voter turnout and awesome malasadas.  It’s just part of who we are.

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Interesting post! A couple thoughts:
1) Maybe we can consider low voter turnout as a symptom rather than the root problem itself. It's an easy way to numerically measure apathy. And for many, it's probably the first step to political activity.... so if you don't vote, it's probably unlikely that you are politically engaged otherwise. Then you end up with a policymaking process for which, like you noted in the post, nobody is showing up to testify.
2) In a given election contest, maybe participation by that election's non-voters wouldn't have changed that specific outcome by much. BUT what if 99% of ELIGIBLE voters actually voted on a regular basis -- watching and listening and voting, each and every cycle? That might create a very different milieu that could encourage new kinds of candidates and ideas to emerge over time.
Just a thought.

Interesting question and good points.

If we knew why we want more voters it might reveal a path to encourage them. As it is, there are complaints but no justification for them.

If it is true that outcomes aren't affected by low voter turnout in large populated areas then we could look at the vote on election day is like a very accurate poll. If the error of margin is plus or minus four percent when polling 1200 people, then during the election when 250,000 people vote the error of margin must be infinitesimally small. I guess I can buy that. Of course it would be better if we could have a greater voter turnout.

Um... why would it be better?

When people vote they feel they have a stake in this country. Nah, who am I kidding. Voting is just he right thing to do.

I believe that if our system was set up as a participatory rather than representative democracy, people would be able to vote on policy rather than merely to elect officials to shape policy on their behalf. The monied interests who have the ear of legislators would disappear if there was no one in a position of power to make those decisions. The way to get higher turnout is to give the public legitimate power.

Michael, good point.

I often ponder that governments (not just ours) are often at odds with the governed. I'm pretty sure that Congress would not want the American people meddling in its work.

How can this be, in 2010? Haven't we learned anything yet?

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