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Turnout myths

Wednesday, Nov 1, 2006

The focus in the media for the next week will be largely on voter turnout. But how accurate will the reporting be? This excellent piece has been making the rounds of the blogs all week, but I keep forgetting to post it. The 5 myths of voter turnout, by Michael McDonald, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.

1) Thanks to increasing voter apathy, turnout keeps dwindling.

This is the mother of all turnout myths. There may be plenty of apathetic voters, but the idea that ever fewer Americans are showing up at the polls should be put to rest. What’s really happening is that the number of people not eligible to vote is rising — making it seem as though turnout is dropping. […]

3) Negative ads turn off voters and reduce turnout.

Don’t be so sure. The case on this one is still open. Negative TV advertising increased in the mid-1980s, but turnout hasn’t gone down correspondingly. The negative Swift boat campaign against Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., apparently did little to depress turnout in the 2004 presidential race.

Some academic studies have found that negative advertising increases turnout. And that’s not so surprising: A particularly nasty ad grabs people’s attention and gets them talking. People participate when they’re interested.

The danger of going negative is that voters may perceive the attacks as unfair. So campaigns tend to stick to “contrast ads,” in which candidates contrast their records with those of their opponents. When people see stark differences between candidates, they’re more likely to vote.

Go read the whole thing, especially if you’re an editorial writer, reporter, columnist or pundit.

Meanwhile, the Sun-Times has the latest on early voting.

Though most votes will be cast next Tuesday, almost 40,000 city and suburban voters have taken advantage of early voting, which ends Thursday. More than 5,000 voters filled out ballots Tuesday, and election officials expect even more to vote today and Thursday at election offices, village halls and libraries.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

5 Comments
  1. - Just me - Wednesday, Nov 1, 06 @ 9:12 am:

    The negative ads may not decrease voter turnout, but they sure are setting the stage for Whitney to become a spoiler in the gubernatorial race.


  2. - Snark - Wednesday, Nov 1, 06 @ 9:17 am:

    Shh, don’t tell Fritchey.


  3. - corvax - Wednesday, Nov 1, 06 @ 9:42 am:

    Given the relative level of ignorance about political matters i’ve encountered (e.g., so many people don’t know who their US congressman is, a tiny minority can name either of their state legislators), i hope the generally low levels of voting reflect the ignorant self-selecting themselves out of the process to spare us the impact of their collective ignorance.


  4. - Veritas - Wednesday, Nov 1, 06 @ 10:32 am:

    “What’s really happening is that the number of people not eligible to vote is rising”

    I assume he’s referring to illegal imigrants. If not, I have no idea what he’s talking about.


  5. - ZC - Wednesday, Nov 1, 06 @ 3:35 pm:

    Veritas,

    He’s talking about a couple of things. Illegal immigrants, yes, but also legal, non-naturalized immigrants. A considerable percentage in Illinois, considering all the Hispanic immigration to this state. Also people with a felony conviction - that has gone up a great deal in recent decades nationwide, especially for drug possession.

    That said, I think McDonald overstates his case about voter turnout not declining at all. It is a tale of two regions. In the South, since the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights measures finally enfranchised African-Americans, and the rise of the Republican party meant the elections started to actually be competitive, turnout has been going up. That increase in the South “masks” a significant decline in voter turnout that has been going on in the rest of the country. And an increase in voting among older Americans has been masking a decline in turnout rates among younger Americans, so his story doesn’t work for every demographic in American politics either.

    That said, I agree with his other points, especially about the negative ads. Ads can depress you - but they can also scare you, scare you so much you make sure to go vote. There’s no one-size-fits-all principle here.


Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.


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