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Voter Turnout and Voting Behavior


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Title: Voter Turnout and Voting Behavior

Voter Turnout and Voting Behavior
  • GOVT 2305

Previously we discussed democracy, elections and
the right to vote in the United States.But
having the right to vote is one thing. Choosing
to exercise it is another, and how people choose
to exercise it is still another.
In this section we look at those two issues.
First, the decision to vote which we refer to
as voter turnout. Click here for another
description of voter turnout. Second, the
decision who to vote for which we refer to as
voter behavior.
Before we go too further, lets discuss The
Paradox of Voting. It is simply not rational
for people to vote, if one expects their vote to
determine the outcome an election. This is
especially true for presidential races. We are
probably all familiar with people who say their
vote doesnt count, and they are right. And this
is a fundamental problem for a democratic
As we already know, a stable republic must rest
on a rational population, but if voting is an
irrational act, there is little reason to expect
that a republic can be maintained. This is a
fundamental dilemma in democratic republics.
Keep this in the back of your mind as we go
forward. Despite the fact that a participatory
public has been judged essential to the
preservation of a republic, the act of voting is
a bit irrational. Theres very little chance
that one vote will change the outcome of any
election. So why do it? People do though, so we
will try to determine why. And when they do,
people tend to find shortcut methods for figuring
out who to vote for. We will look through these
and also how the public has voted in recent years.
But this line of reasoning only works if one
thinks that voting is only about determining who
wins. Voting can also be a reflection of a
groups strength. It may demonstrate the ability
of a group to hold elected representatives
accountable if they pass laws they oppose. But
these threats only work if they are backed up.
This makes voting rational after all. Political
strength depends on who votes, specifically which
groups tend to vote, and vote in all elections,
including primary elections. This helps explain
why certain policies tend to be prioritized more
than others.
For example Its much easier to cut spending on
education than Social Security. Why? Because
older folks votes at far higher rates than
younger folks, this includes primary elections
which tend to be low turnout. In 2012 general
election turnout for those over 65 was 73, for
those 18-24 it was 41. This means that the older
population has a better ability to punish
officeholders that vote against their interests
than the younger population.
The concept of primarying - or getting primaried
is based on this ability. A small active
cohesive group promises to run opponents to
incumbents in primaries if they do not vote in
line with that groups interests. Here are
related stories- Conservative Group Gets Jump
On 'Primarying' Republicans In 2014- Gun Owners
of America Is 'Primarying' the NRA From the
Right- Pro-Legalization Congressional Candidate
Primarying a Democrat in El Paso
And . . . Primary My Congressman!
Office holders take this into consideration when
they vote.Can the affected group hurt me
electorally?This suddenly makes voting as a
group anyway very rational.
Heres a recent example as of this writing
Despite the fact that 90 of the population
stated support for universal background checks
for gun purchases, it was defeated. The reason
was that gun rights supporters have demonstrated
over time that they are very active electorally
and vote as blocs. They can successfully punish
officeholders, and have done so in the past.
Current officeholders know this and act
So understanding voter turnout helps us
understand which groups in the US have political
power and which do not. Think of turnout as
muscle.Remember that democracy can be better
understood not as rule by the people, but by rule
of the participants the electorate.
Lets look at the first question Who Votes?
And then at disparities that exist within the
US population regarding who votes.
First, some specifics on voter turnout.Simply
stated, voter turnout refers to the percentage of
the population that votes. There two ways to look
at this figure, VAP and VEP.
VAP Voting Age PopulationVEP Voting Eligible
Another way to look at turnout as a percentage of
those who have registered to vote.Some argue
that the key to increasing voter turnout is to
make ti easier for people to register to vote.
Next Why does voting turnout matter? Because
it is assumed to reflect the health of our
democratic republic. The more people vote, the
stronger the republic, the less they vote, the
weaker the republic. Heres a look at voter
turnout over American history.
But then again, this is a debatable point. Do
people vote because they feel disconnected, or
because they are generally satisfied? Click
here for an informal list of the different
factors which are argued to lead people to vote.
These are listed on the next slide
- A key issue is at stake- Barriers to voting
were low- People were mobilized - A personal
contact asked them to- One is from a politically
inclined family- People are educated- They
believe their vote counts
Lets think about this after looking at the
following graph, which shows turnout for eligible
voters over time
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Keep in mind as you look at this graph that
suffrage expanded over the course of American
history, as did laws related to elections. This
reflects different stages of American political
1788 1824 Era of elite politics. 1828
1900 Era of machine politics1900 present
Progressive Era and its aftermath.
Note that turnout for presidential elections is
different generally higher - than turnout for
midterm elections. It should also be pointed
out that turnout for national elections tends to
be higher than turnout for state elections, and
turnout for state elections tends to be higher
than that of local elections. And turnout in
general elections tends to be higher than turnout
in primary elections.
Note It is significant to note which elections
tend to be low turnout. This means that smaller
groups are able to determine results in low
turnout elections, most importantly primaries
where turnout is sometimes in the single digits.
This is especially true when that group is
cohesive, passionate and works as single group
rather than single discreet individuals.
The Tea Party for example.What they lack in
numbers they make up in cohesion and action.
Turnout tends to vary from state to state. Click
here for a chart with turnout figures for each
state for the 2012 election. Texas is towards
the bottom of the pack 49.7. Try to figure out
why. Think demographics.
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And turnout also varies within the population.
Differences exist between various groups based on
income, education, race and age.
Heres a graph which outlines a variety of
differences in turnout.
From Daily Infographic
And a few others which focus on specific
differences in turnout.Lets start with race
From The Pew Research Center.
In 2012 for the first time Black turnout
surpassed White turnout 66.2 to
64.1.Question Will this persist after the
Obama presidency is over?
The continued low participation rates of Latinos
and Asians bothers the leaders of those two
communities. The projected growth of the Latino
community suggests that that group is poised to
exert considerable political muscle, but only if
it begins to turnout in large numbers. As of 2012
they are 17.2 of the population, but only
comprised about 12 of the 2012 electorate.
From the Pew Research Hispanic Center
And now age . . .
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. . . And a combination of age and education . .
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Generally voter participation increases with age
and education.This tells us something about
which groups are politically strong and why.
Social Security has stronger support in Congress
than college grants and loans for the obvious
self interested reason.
Heres a look at the nature of turnout right now
The US Census Bureau has comprehensive info about
voting and registration here.
For an analysis of the 2012 turnout, click here.
And for a full report from the Census Bureau,
click here.A few tables from the article
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From Pew Research Center Who Votes, Who Doesn't,
and Why
Turnout around the world
How does voter turnout in the United States
compare with turnout in democracies around the
world?Not well. We rank second to last
according to the Organization for Economic
Co-operation and Development.
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There are reasons the US ranks so low. We dont
really make it easy for people to vote.We also
tend to place very high burdens on voters. We
have many elections with many candidates. This
places tremendous requirements on voters. Not all
countries do.
A general point Most other democracies are
parliamentary, which means that all the voter has
to do is vote for a party. The party then assigns
seats to party members. In the US as we know
people vote separately for candidates for
specific offices. Since many different positions
are up for election, voters have to become
informed on each of the candidates instead of
just the party. In addition, national and state
elections are held every two years, including
primary elections. And local elections are often
held on odd numbered years. The point is that we
have elections all the time, and not everyone
wants to vote in all of them.
There are arguments that parliamentary systems
also encourage turnout because since they allow
for multiple competitive parties, people have a
better opportunity to vote for their top choice.
Remember that in our two party system, the vote
for the Democrat or Republican may seem like a
compromise to the libertarian or
environmentalist. They might not bother to vote
at all.
Can voter turnout be increased?How?
Do we make it too difficult to vote?Many argue
that we do.
One area of controversy regarding turnout is
about voter registration. Do we make it too
difficult to register to vote? Before we answer
this remember the purpose and history of voter
registration. It was one of the progressive
reforms of the early 20th Century designed to
weaken party machines. The other being the
primary election, the anonymous ballot and civil
service reform. When someone registered to vote
their vote was tied into a specific location and
their participation could be monitored. Instead
of roaming from polling place to polling place,
one was eligible to vote in one place and once it
was recorded that you did, you were done.
You might want to read The Right to Vote The
Contested History of Democracy in the United
Lets end this section by exploring a cynical
thought.Not everyone wants turnout to be high.
High turnout does not benefit all candidates or
parties. Some might be hurt by high voter
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Voter registration along with the other
measured designed to check voting had some
These were intended to break apart political
machines, like Tammany Hall.
This did clean up the political process, ballots
were much more difficult to stuff. But this
then meant that political parties had less
incentive to organize people to go to the polls.
Altogether these reforms decreased turnout. We
saw this in the previous slides that showed
turnout dating back to the dawn of the republic.
But some argue that the intent of voter
registration from the beginning was to suppress
the vote.Not all candidates and parties benefit
from enhanced turnout. The rule of thumb is that
Republican and conservative candidates benefit
from low turnout and Democrats and liberal
candidates benefit from high turnout. The groups
that tend to vote at high rates tend to vote
Republican, those that vote at low rates tend to
vote Democrat. This leads to the obvious conflict
over laws related to turnout.
So heres your conflictTighter registration
laws are supported by those afraid of voter
fraud, looser registration laws are supported by
those afraid of voter suppression.
A quick look at voter registration rules.
Registration laws are primarily the
responsibility of state and local governments,
this includes running the elections, printing
ballots and other detail. This can lead to
conflict because some states like Texas - are
more inclined to limit than expand participation.
When the national government tries to use its
power to expand participation, states like Texas
claim that it has violated a states right to
decide for itself how to conduct
elections.Specific detail regarding residency
etc. . . can be found in state laws and city
For a look at each states registration laws
click here.
In Texas, voter registration is implemented by
each countys tax assessor and overseen by the
Texas Secretary of State.We cover the nuts and
bolts of this in GOVT 2306.
Controversy Should registration to the vote be
federally run? Or should it remain with the
For some history, click here.
The constitutional right of states to control who
got to vote was asserted in Minor v Happersett,
an 1875 case where the Supreme Court denied that
the 14th Amendments Privilege and Immunities
Clause included the right to vote.
Many states including Texas - used their power
over access to the polls to prevent some
populations form voting at all. A series of
court decisions during the middle years of the
20th Century whittled away at this power. For
example Smith v Allwright.
The white primary, along with citizenship and
literacy tests, poll taxes and other rules were
designed to selectively suppress the vote.
Voter registration as well.
Congress got involved in the 1960s and passed
laws enhancing access to the polls. The two most
important laws were the Civil Rights Act of 1964
and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Note that
these granted the national government power over
the states.
Title I of the Civil Rights Act barred unequal
application of voter registration
requirements.Among other things, the Voting
Rights Act creates an administrative procedure
preclearance that allows the national
government to intervene if a state passes voting
laws that minimize minority strength.
The further need for pre-clearance continues to
be a subject of debate.
More recently, the National Voter Registration
Act - AKA The Motor Voter Act required state
governments to allow for registration when a
qualifying voter applied for or renewed their
driver's license or applied for social services.
The national government mandated that states make
it easier for citizens to vote. The bill met
with fierce resistance.Did the Motor Voter Bill
Question Do states continue to try to restrict
access by the poor and minorities to the
poll?The Brennan Center report
Current controversy Voter ID laws Should
people be required to provide state issued photo
evidence that they are in fact the person whose
name is on the registration list?
Also Same Day Registration
Click here for state differences in state voter
identification requirements.
Next section Voting Behavior
Voting behavior focuses on how people in fact
make decisions in elections. There are two
specific decisions we will look at. The first is
the decision to vote itself. The second is who to
vote for. In recent decades, data has been
collected to address these questions. We will
review some of what has been discovered.
Click here to look through blog posts Ive
compiled tagged voting behavior.
And in order to introduce the general concept.
Heres a flowchart which will determine whether
you will vote Democrat or Republican.
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OK, thats a bit tongue in cheek, but this chart
reports what type of candidates voters are most
likely to support, or not.
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Why do people make these decisions?
A quick comment on mental shortcuts what fancy
people call heuristics.Generally, we dont care
to spend an awful lot of time, so we have a
tendency to use shortcuts to determine who to
support and why. We do this for all sorts of
things, and is a topic we discuss more when we
look into public opinion and what leads
individuals to form opinions as they .
Perhaps its lazy, but its a common tendency.
It may not reflect how we want people to behave
but its a good assessment about how they behave.
It may also be a consequence of the amount of
information the US electoral system requires
voter to accumulate in order to make informed
Proponents of political parties argue that one of
their benefits is that they simplify the voting
decision for people in a way that still allows
for an informed vote. This assumes that the
party can offer a slate of candidates committed
to a specific set of policies, which is a dispute
we wade into when we cover political parties in a
separate set of slides.
The general point is that people tend to use
shortcuts to decide who to vote for, and we
understand voter behavior better if we know what
these shorts cuts are.
For a better explanation, Ill defer to the
description of voting behavior provided made by
the ICPSR (cause they are smarter than me).
They point argue that long term and short term
consideration enter into voting decisions.
The long term factors areparty
identificationandgeneral ideological
They are relatively stable.They can also
influence what types of message one is likely to
accept or reject about the facts related to
These are long term because they tap into
attitudes that transcend a specific electoral
period. If one identifies as a Republican, or a
liberal, they tend to do so for a somewhat
lengthy period. Orientations can change of
course, but not that often.
Historically, party identification has been the
dominant influence on voting behavior, but this
was when party identification was very high. More
people call themselves independent than
Republican or Democrat. This makes party
identification less likely to determine vote
The short term factors are - orientations on
specific issues of public policy- general
evaluations of the government performance-
evaluations of the personal characteristics of
the candidates
These factors are peculiar to a specific
election, and can vary. This is a subject of
dispute however because some argued that
evaluations of policy, governmental performance
and candidates can vary depending on the messages
one gets from partisan and ideological sources.
For example, the evaluations one might have about
a candidate can vary depending on what a strong
party identifier is told about that candidate by
the party.
So the theory is that people have relatively
stable identifications with a political party, as
well as a relatively stable ideological
identification as well, these condition their
voting decisions, but that decision can be
impacted by the nature of the times, attitudes
about government performance and the
characteristics of the specific candidates
running at a given moment in time.
Heres a look at the nature of party
identification and ideological identification
over recent years.
From the Pew Research Center.
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Note the rise of independent voters those who
deny affiliation with either the Democratic or
Republican Parties. Some argue that these people
- swing voters tip elections one way or the
other. Campaign spend lots of money identifying
who these voters are and what it takes to get
their votes.
They also spend money ensuring that those who
identify with their party do in fact vote.
These are called get out the vote drives, or
From the Gallup Poll
Notice that ideology is relatively steady. But
heres a twist, just because one identifies as a
conservative or liberal it does not follow that
they then adopt positions on all issues that a
liberal or conservative would adopt.Here is a
look at ideological identification by party.
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Again, while these factors can be steady, their
influence on vote choice is moderated by three
factors mentioned before. This helps explain why
sometimes a party identifier might support a
candidate from a different party. The issues
that dominate attention during a specific
electoral cycle might lead one to vote for the
candidate of the other party, or that
characteristics of one candidate might be more
appealing than that of ones own partys nominee.
People do not change their party identification,
but they might vote for the candidate of the
other party for a specific election.
Sometime this is due to the nature of the times.
Generally (but not always) Republican candidates
do better during times of external threats war
for example. Those candidates might receive votes
from moderate Democrats. This happened for George
W. Bush in 2004. Generally (but not always)
Democratic candidates do better during times of
economic hardship. Those candidates might receive
votes from moderate Republicans. This happened
for Barack Obama in 2008.
For recent detail, from the AtlanticThe Types
of People Who Voted for Obama
Some researchers argue that presidential
elections results are relatively easy to predict
if one simply looks at a variety of factors
related to the economy, especially disposable
income. If people feel they are doing well
economically, they vote for the incumbent, or the
candidate who is the nominee of the incumbents
Candidate CharacteristicsWith the rise of
modern media communications, especially
television, researchers have noted an increased
tendency of people to be swayed by the specific
characteristics of a candidate apart from their
party affiliation.
A good recent example was Ronald ReaganThe
Reagan Democrats
Political historians argue that the introduction
of television changed how parties conducted their
conventions and selected candidates. Visual
appeal became more important.
Fun Fact Since the dawn of television, the
candidate with the most hair has tended to win
every election. See The Living Room Candidate
A Final Point Voter Projections
A large amount of data is collected about both
voter turnout and behavior. These are analyzed
and reanalyzed regularly, which has led to a
relatively accurate picture of what motivates
people to vote and who to vote for. This enters
into electoral strategy.
Candidates, parties and polling firms all develop
statistical models to determine who is likely to
vote based on demographic characteristics.Heres
a graph showing the Gallup Polls projections
for who is likely to vote prior to each of the
three most recent presidential elections.
Candidates and parties do this to fine tune their
get out the vote drives. These are efforts they
use to ensure that their supporters make it to
the polls. For Democrats this can be especially
tricky since their supporters especially
Latinos - tend to be from groups that are less
likely to vote than others.
The goal of these researchers is to make
campaigning less a guessing game than a work of
To wrap all this up here are some random graphs
with info about voter behavior.Follow the links
for info.
Population Density Matters
Race continues to matter
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