The Troubling and Confusing Nature of Voter Turnout in RI

This morning I accidentally kicked over a hornets’ nest when I chastised on Twitter what I called “voter scolds” who complain about not enough voters turning out. With the May 5th special election primary having happened and the UK General Election coming up, these types of articles decrying low turnout are particularly pernicious. Especially here in Rhode Island, where statewide turnout almost always exceeds the US average, the problem is not half as bad as screeds decrying the ills of low turnout would have you believe (in fact, due to poor record-keeping, turnout is almost certainly higher than we think).

The problem is a number of myths that have sprung up in the minds of our local punditry that simply aren’t real. Myths about mandates, voter preferences, and the impact of the day-to-day campaign cloud the views of political observers during the horse race. Despite the wailing over who said what or said something else, or who’s car got stolen, there isn’t a lot a reporter can tell you about what’s going on during a given day of the election. Absent regular polling, it’s mainly speculation and reporting what the campaigns are saying/doing (the situation here in Rhode Island).

So why do we get concerned with turnout in the first place? Well, from a purely political perspective, turnout on your side is crucial to your side winning the election. From another stand point, if turnout is higher, the resulting elected officials are more likely to represent the policy preferences of their constituents. And if you’re completely misguided, you’re equating turnout percentage with “an electoral mandate from the voters to do what the winner wants.”

Parties have an incentive to increase turnout among their voters and lower that of their opposition

One of the odd problems in Rhode Island’s politics is that the Republican Party has an incentive to decrease turnout – they are more likely to win if fewer voters show up. Even though they have a massive advantage across the state in terms of number of voters, the Democratic Party has struggled during the Obama years to keep turnout from declining in midterm elections. I say struggled, but the actual Party itself likely doesn’t even care; the advantage is so strong, and leaders’ seats are so safe that they have no electoral incentive to boost turnout. The loss of a few marginal seats isn’t enough to make an impact in control of the House or Senate; or even break the Democratic supermajority. Meanwhile, Republicans have an advantage in that their voters tend to be reliable voters, even in midterms.

This is why you shouldn’t see get-out-the-vote operations that indiscriminately bring voters to the polls. You want to be able to get just your voters to the polls, not get your opponent’s voters to the polls.

Time matters

The two major voting reforms of the past few years have increased the demands of voting. Voter ID introduced another hurdle that voters have to go through, and the repeal of the master lever increased the demand on time. In the 2014, lack of time was the number one limiting factor in why voters didn’t make it to the polls. It’s easy for the privileged to downplay how difficult getting to the polls can be, but the reality is that people only have a window of a few hours in the day to get to their polling place, and those hours can be eaten up by the demands of work, family, or travel.

Time is money, and if someone sees a long line at the polling place, considers the financial impact a long wait would have on them, weighs it against the likelihood of their single vote making a difference, and then walks away, that isn’t a sign of apathy. It’s behaving as a rational economic actor.

Higher turnout means more liberal outcomes

This is probably the part that people won’t like, but the reality is that the policy preferences of the poor are vastly more liberal than the policy preferences of the rich. And the poor outnumber the rich by wide margins. Thus, if turnout is higher, liberal candidates stand better chances of winning, because they will be more aligned with the electorate. And this is exactly why a reform like Voter ID is targeted at liberal groups like the poor, students, and minorities.

It’s no secret that Rhode Island’s politicians exist in an exceptionally narrow political spectrum – Rhode Island is the least polarized state legislature. That’s largely because the Democratic caucuses are right wing among US state Democratic caucuses and the Republican caucuses are left wing among US state Republican caucuses.

The problem is that the low number of Republican voters versus the high number of Democratic voters shows that there’s more room on the left for candidates. I think one of the reasons many Democrats were willing to push through Voter ID is that they feared the rise of left-wing candidates, especially after centrist Democrats were primaried out of office in 2010.

“Uninformed” voting is not a problem

This goes back to the issue of time, but the linked study shows that only 20% of voters who failed to vote nationwide didn’t vote because of reasons like they didn’t care for the candidates, didn’t care enough to go vote, or didn’t have enough information. This is because voters simply do not enter a voting booth and blindly cast votes for candidates. Voters cast their votes for a reason (though what those reasons are may be inscrutable to an outside observer).

And yet, it’s common enough to hear the suggestion that we don’t want uninformed voters voting. The problem is that uninformed voters do not vote. The big critique from Republicans of the single party option on the RI ballot was that voters were just selecting “Democratic Party” because they like the Democratic Party and not the individual candidate.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Even if the voter knows nothing about the specific candidate, they have a reasonable expectation of the candidate’s policy choices, because that candidate is a Democrat, and the Democratic Party stands for a generally recognized set of principles. The assumption from Republicans is that somehow, if forced to consider the differences between the two candidates, the same voter would then vote for the Republican candidate, even though the Republican’s policies are likely to be at odds with the voter’s set of policies that they believe are more closely aligned with the Democratic Party.

This is absolute nonsense. Worse, we know that politics makes people stupid, and that the more “informed” one is, the more likely one is to be a political partisan, and thus despite the quantity of information you have learned, you are not going to be swayed by it. Less informed voters are more likely to be open-minded, closer to the political center, and more representative of the public at large.

Campaigns (specifically canvassers) boost turnout

Canvassing is the most important of a political campaign when it comes to turnout. This cannot be understated. People who are contacted and asked to vote (in quality conversations) are more likely to go vote – and continue to go vote. Increasing the competitiveness of elections puts more canvassers on the doors, increases the likelihood of voting, and leaves a major impact.

The problem is that in Rhode Island you can’t increase competitiveness without opening access to alternatives to the Republicans and Democrats. While the proportion of Republicans in the General Assembly is less than their proportion of statewide votes, there’s not a good way to solve that issue under the current electoral system. While some may cry that this is gerrymandering, the reality is that gerrymandering is not a useful concept, nor the full explanation of what’s going on in RI. Because RI’s districts must conform to Baker v. Carr and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, increasing political parity in the legislature has to take a back seat.

The other option is proportional representation, but proportional representation systems open the door to third parties. Both parties have a vested interest in preventing this from happening. The Republicans should be afraid of being split by a right wing party, weakening their base even further, and overtaken by a left wing party as the official minority party. The Democrats also need to fear a left wing party on the rise, because it could defeat, or at least eclipse, them in an election.

But sadly, the only way to get more canvassers out there is to have more candidates running for office, and you can’t do that unless you open up our democracy to more than the two major parties.

So what?

The problem is that those who scold voters for failing to turnout are overlooking a vast number of issues that explain turnout. Worse, it places blame onto the victims of a system. As I’ve said before, turnout issues in Rhode Island aren’t a random bug; they’re a designed feature.

It’s simply unhelpful for punditry to scold voters for not going to the polls. First, most voters aren’t going to see the scolding, so it’s the equivalent of pissing in the wind. Second, it’s mostly not their fault, the biggest reason people can’t make it to the polls is poor access due to time constraints. And third, it lets the people with the ability to make a real difference off the hook.

When turnout is low, pundits and reporters need to ask politicians what they are going to do about it. They literally have the power to increase turnout by making changes to the electoral system.

Luckily, at least one person is doing just that. Our Secretary of State, Nellie Gorbea, has proposed two things that will boost turnout (and one thing that will make calculating turnout more accurate). Online registration makes it easier for people to sign up to vote, while early in-person voting should reduce the number of people who can’t make it to the polls due to time constraints. Participating in the ERIC system should clean up our voting rolls, and likely show an increase in turnout as ineligible voters are removed from the rolls.

There are definitely more dramatic reforms, but these are brilliant first steps, and Gorbea should be commended for them.

One more caveat

A lot of national data is used here, and the simple fact of the matter is that we don’t know much about why Rhode Island’s turnout is the way it is. We can extrapolate based on the national data, but the reality is that here in Rhode Island we simply don’t invest in polling people or studying what’s going on in our elections.


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