Not to be missed: This editorial offering from Cory Farley in the Reno Gazette Journal. Yes, voters have been operating on auto-pilot. And there’s that common refrain — elected officials are venal, banal, untrustworthy, ineffective, and analogous with hundreds of varieties of planktonic and filamentous pond algae, BUT I’m going to vote for my version anyway.
The range of voter turnout is interesting — we’ve never dropped below 31% nor have we gotten much higher than 65%. [Nevada 2012 turnout here (pdf)] So, we can guess that no matter how crucial the election there will be 35% of those eligible to vote who will stay home. A few will be ill, or otherwise unable to exercise their rights, more are probably in the realm of extremely low information voters who don’t tend to participate.
There’s a bit of a message for Washoe County Democrats in the Secretary of State’s voting statistics, given that ‘inactive voters’ are among the count in this state. As of February 2014 there were 95,217 registered Democrats in Washoe County, and 95,819 registered Republicans. [NVsos pdf] However, dipping into the Active Voters information we find 79,689 active voter Democrats in Washoe County and 83,766 active voter Republicans. [NVsos pdf] The most common form of “lost (inactive) voter” is the person who has changed residency. Younger people, and some categories of working people (seasonal employment, lower income, etc.) are more likely to move than those settled in waiting for retirement.
So, what factors affect voter turnout?
(1) Electoral competitiveness: The hotter the race (especially at the top of the ticket) the more likely there will be a higher turnout.
(2) The type of election: Off year elections (mid terms) aren’t as favorable for turnout as Presidential year elections. We knew this already. However, one rather startling statistic to come from a study of of 340 mayoral elections in 144 U.S. cities from 1996-2012 is that the average turnout was a meager 25.8% — one election (1999) in Dallas, TX drew a not-so-whopping 5%. [FVOrg]
(3) Voting requirements: More people tend to vote if registration is convenient and accessible, and more tend to vote if the voting time is extended. Further, early voting tends to add to the numbers of people who vote, as does the implementation of policies which call for an adequate number of conveniently located polling stations for all precincts. Factors which reduce turnout are: Voter ID laws and other restrictions, lack of voting equipment, lack of voting sites, and other suppression tactics.
(4) Age and Income: In the 2008 national election only 41% of those earning less than $15,000 per year voted, while 78% of those earning over $150,000 cast ballots. Those 30 years of age and older are 15-20 points more likely to vote than their cohorts who are between the ages of 18 and 29. [FVorg]
(5) Location: Rural voters tend to have higher turnout rates than urban areas. [DY]
The Turn Out Problems
There’s a tendency among punditry to comment only upon national elections, that’s really picking the low hanging fruit. It’s always easier to pontificate in generalities and national elections are chock-a-block full of them. However, most governmental decisions which have a direct impact on our ordinary lives are made by state legislatures, city councils, county commissions, and locally elected officials.
Our state legislatures will determine the tax structure of our communities. There’s no standard national property tax, and whatever we do for our local schools will have precious little to do with the Department of Education — it’ll be based on the decisions of our state legislature and the local school boards.
Our law enforcement policies will be determined by local officials. The Department of Justice rarely looks into local affairs, and then only if a constitutional question arises or there is an overlap in jurisdictions. What is and is not declared criminal behavior is determined at the state level. What will and will not be funded is determined at the state and local levels.
Zoning restrictions, public health codes, fire codes, and economic development projects are a function of state and local government. While there may be federal minimum requirements underpinning some of these elements, the enforcement and implementation is accomplished at the local level.
Likewise, local and often state party leadership tends to focus on the Big Ones — as well they should, however the level of effort should be improved in terms of local and state elections. Not only are local and state officials the ‘farm team’ for national offices, but they are the races with the most immediate effect on most people’s lives. So, when did we last hear of a really big “get out the vote” effort in a mayoral race? A race for a county commission?…
*For more information on the drop off rate, see EAC Chapter 7 (pdf)