Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Election Law Changes Have Had Little Impact on Hoosier Turnout

A study of Indiana's last eleven presidential elections show that changes to voting procedures have had little impact on turnout.

The traditional measure of turnout looks at the number of voters divided by the total number of registered voters.  This calculation often suggests wild swings in turnout.  But in reality, the wild swings are not about voters going to the polls, but the current state of the voter registration lists.

Let me explain. Voters die. Voters move.  After a few years, the voter registration lists fill up with such non-voters.  Before the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (the "Motor Voter Law") local officials would purge voters from the lists if they didn't vote in a single election in a four year cycle.  The NVRA made it much more difficult to purge voters for not voting.  As a result, counties have to send out two sets of postcards that, if returned as undeliverable, allows them to purge said voters  The process is expensive, labor-intensive and controversial.  Elected officials who approve the legally required purges inevitably end up getting accused of "voter suppression."  So many just ignore the legal mandate, at least until they receive a court order.  

Because the voter registration lists are filled with people who have died or have moved, using total registered voters as the denominator in a calculation of voter turnout leads to wildly inaccurate results.  

There is another problem with using the total number of registered voters in a turnout calculation.  Doing so does not take into consideration how easy or hard it is to register to vote.  Let's say a jurisdiction imposed such restrictions on registration that only a small percent of highly-committed residents could get registered to vote.  Using the traditional way of calculating turnout, that jurisdiction would likely have very high turnout, but that would be a very misleading picture of what isgoing on.

There is a solution and that is to compare the number of voters to the population that is 18 years or older, since those are the individuals eligible to vote.  In doing that, I have listed below the "real turnout" in Indiana during the last eleven presidential elections:

Two significant events happened during this forty year period. In 1992, the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress and the White House.  That paved the way for the 1993 National Voter Registration Act which forced states to expand registration opportunities.  Democrats believed that "obstacles" to registration had discouraged people which the NVRA addressed.  But the next two elections actually produced the lowest real turnout rates during the forty year period studied, 49.6% in 1996 and 48.8% in 2000, the only two sub-50% turnout elections among the last eleven presidential elections.  

In 2005, the Republican-dominated Indiana General Assembly passed a law requiring that voters present a government-issued photo ID in order to vote.  Critics said it was most restrictive voter ID law in the country.  Several stories were published of voters being turned away at the polls for not having an ID.  But Indiana's first presidential election featuring photo ID, in 2008, produced the then highest real turnout with 58.1% of adult voters going to the polls.  In 2020, that record was topped with 58.7% real turnout.  The two highest turnout elections in Indiana during the 40 year period happened after the photo ID requirement was passed.

I picked 1980 as the starting point because that's the first election I voted in.  I later became politically active in Indianapolis GOP politics around 1986.  It was so much harder to get registered and to vote in the 1980s.  There was no mail-in registration, no early voting.  You had to show up to vote on election day between 6 am and 6 pm, and show up in your correct precinct.  Despite Democrats complaining about Republicans erecting "obstacles" to voting, it is easier to register and vote than it has ever been.

OOP's short takes:

  • Politico has an article today on redistricting that suggests the Indiana General Assembly might redraw congressional districts from 7-2 Republican to 8-1, eliminating Democratic domination of Congressman Frank Mrvan's district in northwest Indiana by including more Republican territory.  Since the heavily Democratic city of Gary, the anchor of the district, has lost so much population, I think it is not only possible it is turned into a Republican-leaning district, I think its likely. 

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