Thursday, November 06, 2014


Are the voters or the political pundits the more apathetic?

by Larry Geller

Nationally, 36.6 percent of eligible voters actually voted. In Hawaii, it was 34.9 Midterm turnoutpercent, or pretty close to the national figure. In fact, according to a chart in an Al Jazeera article, Hawaii has tracked the national trend in midterm elections pretty closely (the darker bar is Hawaii).

The Al Jazeera article discusses the difference between counting eligible voters and counting those registered to vote, especially in this election when impediments to registration have been put in place in many states.

It’s easy to make some simple assumptions about the declining voter turnout. Al Jazeera offers some, including this:

Turnout proved to be lower than previous years in all but 10 states, but the reasons for that decline are many: Some states lacked competitive races to draw voters to the polls; others cut polling hours or reduced early voting periods. And, in some states, new voter ID laws could have kept some voters away. Public opinion polls such as the one released by Gallup earlier this week suggested that fewer Americans cared about this election than in previous years.

“Fewer Americans cared” is not a great explanation. Gallup polled, but did not dig very deeply to discover the motivations for non-voting.

I’ve noted that the news media is fond of declaring voters to be “apathetic,” which also provides little insight.

It’s easy to gather participation statistics and then slice and dice them several ways—for example, comparing turnout to prior elections or ranking along with other states. Statistical analysis would be the first step towards understanding why people choose not to vote, but it would not tell the whole story. To get to the bottom of the issue, one would have to ask the right questions.

To start with, there is some data available

To learn more, one could, for example, examine data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) data on voting behavior from the U.S. Census Bureau in order to compare population segments. This is just finer slicing and dicing, but it would be a good start to researching the motivations for non-voting. A difference among ethnic groups, for example, might lead to a line of questioning that could try to uncover any disparate motivations for voting or for not voting in each group.

The CPS surveys might be a good starting point since they are said to have a relatively low misreporting rate.

If one is willing to move away from the simplistic explanation of apathy, there are a number of hypotheses that could be formed. For example, there might be legal or procedural barriers. If a survey actually asked voters why they didn’t vote, clear answers may or may not emerge, but a properly constructed survey might (for example) ask also about legal or procedural barriers.

Starting in 2018 Hawaii will have same-day voting registration at polling places, but have people actually indicated, in any well-constructed study, that the lack of same-day voter registration has kept them away from the polls? Was this ever a critical problem? If not, while same-day registration is a good thing, come 2018 if the turnout does not increase, perhaps that wasn’t a key reform at all. Of course, in 2018 we’d still have to ask people why they didn’t vote, there’s no escaping it.

We could also form hypotheses around the demographics. Breaking the non-voting population down by age group, for example, to see which groups voted more or less than others. Then, survey questions could be designed to discover why any differences were measured.

Other hypotheses might be formed around age and income or residential stability. For some of these questions, CPS or other data may be available, or else it would be a matter of the survey. The CPS actually includes questions on non-voting. This is an example chart:

Reasons for not voting

(from New Faces, New Voices: The Hispanic Electorate in America, Marisa A. Abrajano, R. Michael Alvarez, Princeton University Press, 2010 p. 87)

Understanding motives can benefit political parties

Clearly, when there is a background of low voter turnout, political parties form their own hypotheses in order to try and mobilize their base to vote, or to attract non-voters from the other side or from independents. So the kind of research that I am advocating would appear to be of real practical use.

Even without the survey aspect, a breakdown by age or ethnicity followed by some rudimentary questions (or even informed assumptions) about those groups would give guidance to parties and candidates. What are the non-voters’ issue preferences? If a candidate wants to attract a particular group, it would pay to understand their issues as well as the potential voting numbers that addressing those issues might produce.

The few available national surveys can’t explain Hawaii’s pattern of non-voting. For one thing, there are historical differences that may matter here that are not found elsewhere. Also, studies that slice the population into Anglo/Black/Hispanic, as they might typically do for the Mainland, would not apply here anyway.

There could even be social factors such as access to health care—Hawaii’s Prepaid Healthcare Act may reduce the influence of healthcare positions of candidates on making a decision whether to come out and vote. If more citizens have health coverage, that factor would not press them to vote for a candidate promising better health care, for example.

One could form and test a hypothesis based on political leaning: how does the availability of viable candidates who are liberal/moderate/conservative influence voting? How does the electorate view themselves on this axis and what is their tolerance for a candidate mismatch?

No one says figuring this out would be easy. On the other hand, I’m tired of reading in the newspaper that Hawaii voters are apathetic when the writers haven’t a clue—and are perhaps (my hypothesis) too apathetic to dig deeper.


I wanted to share some of our experiences from Tuesday: Some of our team members worked at the Control Center on Election Day and each of us received various feedback from voters or eligible voters (people who thought the were registered but had moved, or people who said they didn't know that there was a separate voter registration deadline) complained that they would vote via provisional ballots because Hawaii doesn't allow for SDR (yet). We helped push for SDR because the comments I mentioned above were recurring feedback from previous election cycles. Other states have seen a voter turnout increase of anywhere from 5-11% after implementing SDR. Obviously there are many factors that could affect the margin in Hawaii. So while it won't miraculously give our voter turnout a 180 degree change, every little bit helps.

Thanks for your comment, your report, and for all of your work to improve our elections.

Yes, same-day registration should help-- maybe one day it will be standard in all states, assuming that they give up this crazy voter suppression that makes our democracy a laughing stock overseas.

But again, for Hawaii, we don't know what is going on, really. Every little bit does help. Yes. Or, maybe I should say, we'll see. That;s nothing negative about the advantages of SDR, only saying that we don't know what part of the non-voting will be affected by the positive change. It's something we must do, nevertheless.

If we are to rely on numbers to measure our rate of voter participation, especially if we want to compare our turnout to other state,s or if we want to monitor or turnout here compared to previous years, we need to make sure we are comparing apples with apples.

There are two main approaches to measure voter turnout. Both have serious defects. The most common way is to calculate the number of ballots cast as a percentage of registered voters. This approach has serious problems. Some states keep names on their voter rolls even if they have not voted in several years. This "dead wood" on the voter rolls makes turnout look bad. Some states actively encourage voter registration. Hawaii has made it very easy to register to vote via self-affirming Wikiwiki voter registration forms, motor voter registration, etc. Some states recruit voters in the high schools. Reliance on the traditional measure of voter turnout penalizes states who make voter registration easy.

The second approach, adopted as a way to (try to) overcome these problems, is to calculate turnout as a percentage of the "voter eligible population" (VEP). They use US Census data to determine the number of residents over the age of 18, minus the number of incarcerated felons. This overcomes problems caused by voter suppression, or voter registration suppression, which varies from state to state. This is the approach used by a George Mason University study which has appeared in news accounts. This methodology grossly under-reports Hawaii's turnout, because we have the highest percentage of non-resident military in the whole country. Our "VEP” is over-inflated by about 100,000 people, well over ten percent! No other state comes even close. Any news account which say Hawaii has the lowest turnout in the country relies upon this study and reflects lazy reporting.

There have been "solutions" proposed in the past for increasing turnout in. In 1978, the Hawaii constitution was amended to eliminate the partisan closed primary election. Advocates promised this would encourage turnout. The first election conducted on this basis was in 1980. Turnout had been declining prior to and after that "solution" was adopted. A second "solution" was to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. While this did increase the number of voters, it lowered voter turnout as a percentage of registered voters, as young people vote in much lower numbers than middle-aged and seniors.

Same day voter registration would appear to less likely to screw up the voter turnout percentage, since people would become registered voters and actually VOTE rather than just inflate the registered voter rolls. But I remain skeptical that it will actually do much to change who votes or boost the actual turnout over time. Younger voters and tenants are more likely to benefit from it. But even once they get registered, younger voters and tenants rarely vote. SO it appears their low rates of participation are not likely to change much with SDR. Also SDR will increase the workload at polling places, as well as the work of collecting and processing those forms. This, at a time when the Office of Elections in Hawaii, but also in virtually every locale across the country, is already overburdened on Election Day. Saying we will support more funds to pay for these extra costs is a nice, but empty gesture.

A much bigger obstacle to voting are the Real ID standards for drivers licenses and state IDs. Hawaii law does not require a picture ID to vote. We are better than those states where the GOP has passed Voter ID laws. But a picture ID meeting Real ID standards is still required to register to vote. And low-income people are much less likely to satisfy the Real ID standards. So the effect of the Republican voter suppression laws will gradually have its impact here, even if we have tried to avoid that impact at the polling place.

Common Cause, the LWV and other voter advocacy groups would be wise to pay attention to that problem now.

I think you're basic assumption is wrong. People don't have a reason for NOT voting- they just have no reason TO vote. All those "reasons" in the chart are a result of people being asked to "pick one." But even of they had an affirmative reason for NOT voting it would be multiple reasons and those "reasons" would be shifting depending on when and how they are asked.
I really think people turn out when they have a reason to vote- same sex marriage, GMOs or some other hot button issue they think that voting will address. That's the basic premise of all GOTV efforts.

And not having initiative and referendum or petition constitutional amendments may well be the "sub-reason" behind "low voter turnout" since those issues are not going to be on the ballot- even legislators can't out referenda on the ballot.

Andy, you have a point.

They do say (or, I think it was Jay Leno who said...) "If God wanted us to vote, He'd have given us candidates." So I agree that if there are issues on the ballot it would motivate people to vote. You'd think.

But without testing that, I'm not sure.

The voting rate for absentee ballots is apparently much higher than for walk-ins in Hawaii. So there are many factors. Even for an election with nothing but candidates, that is, no hot-button issues, the voter turnout varies from state to state and place to place. Why? I don't think we know yet.


I want to echo SOME of what Andy is saying here. The dominant narrative about low-turnout insinuates non-voters are to blame. I would turn it around. It is the political candidates who are not motivating people to vote. I was a door-to-door solar salesman for about six months in my misspent youth. While I neveer became a good salesman, I had some things pressed into my brain. A good salesman does not blame the prospect for not agreeing to the sale. He/she accepts responsibility and works to improve their sales pitch.

None of which is intended to tell people not to vote. But to help us find a way out of the problem. We have a reinforcing, downward spiral dynamic at work with voter turnout. Low-income people do not vote. Ergo, politicians aim their pitch, as well as their support for issues, at upper-middle class "burghers," small business folks and the special interests. It is not just campaign contributors that influence legislators' behavior. It is also likely voters in their district. Since low-income people, young folks and renters do not vote, their needs are ignored. These groups would be screwed over even more if other groups, including some of the unions and some non-profits, were not exerting influence on the legislators on their behalf. During the minimum wage struggle, we had significant help from some unions who had no direct interest in the outcome--like HGEA--but who helped a lot behind the scenes, out of a commitment to social justice. Local 5 and the ILWU, played a more obvious role, but they also had an strong interest in the tip credit issue.

In the "chicken and egg" problem, low-income people do not vote because few politicians will represent their interests. Few politicians bother to look out for the interests of low-income people because they don't bother to vote, so they ignore them. To break this "chicken or egg" dilemma, it requires an intervention by outside forces to mount a serious voter registration, GOTV effort, combined with running extra-ordinary candidates committed to, and rooted in, the working class. Can such an effort be sustained long enough to overcome the structural problems inherent in low-income voter turnout?

I don't share Andy's enthusiasm for initiative and referendum. I used to, back when I was young like Andy. But perhaps more than any other aspect of political campaigns, I distrust the dominant power of Big Money in determining the outcome. I will admit, the recent success of the anti-GMO initiative on Maui, overcoming the $8 million spent by Dow and Monsanto, might soften my skepticism. Ige's defeat of Abercrombie, despite Neil's 10-1 advantage in fundraising, also suggests Big Money isn't everything.

I do caution that special interest groups and political parties use initiatives for the purpose Andy mentions, to drive turnout of their base. And to do that, they need to inflame passions in the public. This can generate the kinds of divisive tensions which Maui and Kauai have experienced this election cycle. A strategy of "polarization" as a political tool to drive turnout.

That may be the price of democracy.

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