Yesterday, Twitter user DukeDuluth wrote the following which was picked up and re-Tweeted by many anxious for something to discuss in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses:
State with highest % voter turnout in most recent general election should have first presidential contest. Reward Democracy.
I will admit to having been involved in past efforts to study the primary scheduling process – so I will walk away from any discussion about whether DukeDuluth’s idea has merit. But his idea is a golden opportunity to discuss the question of turnout – especially since the concept is going to get a lot of airtime over the next year.
Generally speaking, turnout is the proportion of voters who participate in an election, usually expressed as a percentage.
That’s where it stops being simple. Here’s why.
First of all, we have to decide what data to put into the fraction used to calculate turnout. The numerator is votes – but which votes? In a Presidential election year, this is usually votes for President, but even this number doesn’t likely capture the full extent of voters who cast a ballot and fail to record a vote for president – intentionally or not. As George Mason professor (and turnout guru) Michael McDonald explains:
Some people do not cast a vote, even for president. Some failures to record votes are true errors, such as unrecorded votes originating from the infamous hanging chads of the 2000 Florida election. It is important to realize that some people intentionally abstain. for example, the 2004 presidential election 3,688 Nevadans voted for “None of These Candidates” (Nevada is the only state that allows this option). Under-Votes are such blank or indecernable votes. Over-votes occur when a voter selects multiple candidates when only one is acceptable.
A better measure of participation might be Total Ballots Cast, which includes all under-votes and over-votes, but does not include rejected provisional ballots, which are often cast when a voter’s eligibility is in question. (Residual vote is the difference between total ballots cast and vote for highest office.) The problem is that most, but not all, states report the total ballots cast.
The good news is that an increasing number of states report total ballots cast, which makes it possible to estimate the total ballots cast for the few non-reporting states. National total ballots cast is therefore an estimate using the correspondence between the vote for highest office and total turnout for the states that provide both numbers.
Once you’ve settled on a numerator, it’s time to choose a denominator – and here’s where it gets really interesting.
I would guess that if you asked the average person how to calculate turnout, they’d say it’s the percentage of registered voters who cast a ballot. But as we’ve discussed several times in past blog posts, states have widely (and wildly) different approaches to voter registration meaning that any attempt to use state-by-state registration as a denominator creates not just apples to oranges but the whole fruit salad.
That’s why, at least for a while, turnout mavens used voting age population (VAP) as the denominator – it’s a common definition state-to-state (18+, at least following the 26th Amendment in 1971) and makes comparisons more meaningful.
But even VAP has limitations. McDonald again:
Declining turnout rates, post-1971, are entirely explained by the increase in the ineligible population. In 1972, the non-citizen population of the United States was less than 2 percent of VAP and in 2004 it was nearly 8.5 percent of VAP. The percent of non-felons among the VAP have increased from .5 to about 1 percent of the VAP since the mid-1980s …
State turnout rates are not comparable using VAP since the ineligible population is not uniformly distributed across the United States. For example, nearly 20 percent of California’s voting-age population is ineligible to vote because they are not citizens.
Consequently, McDonald and others use a figure that he calls voting eligible population (VEP) which is calculated by removing non-citizens and ineligible felons from the denominator. The resulting percentage –
is typically used to express turnout.
So – back to the idea that started it all … using this method and McDonald’s 2008 turnout data, which state would have the nation’s first presidential contest?
- – Not Iowa – it was 6th (70.3% of VEP);
- – Not New Hampshire – 4th (72%);
- – South Carolina? Please … 42nd (58.8%).
No – the first state would be the one which typically leads the nation in turnout … Minnesota (78.4%).
Which is home to … Duluth … which (presumably) is home to … DukeDuluth.
Whether or not this is coincidence is left as an exercise for the reader 🙂