Does turnout matter?

Back in the 1980s and ’90s, when I was a young psephologist, there was a great deal of angst about turnout in American presidential elections, which hovered a little above fifty per cent. It was commonly said that such low participation was a threat to democracy, and that it contributed to hyper-partisanship and to general dysfunctionality in the political system.

Since then there has been a substantial change. Turnout rose significantly in 2004 and 2008, then after falling back a little it jumped at last year’s election to 66.7% – a level not seen since the end of the nineteenth century. The rise in the mid-term Congressional election of 2018 was equally striking. (Michael McDonald has all the data.)

But it doesn’t seem to have helped much. The United States is as bitterly divided as ever, if not more so. Despite last year’s high turnout, the worst and most divisive president in its modern history came close to winning re-election, and his failure to concede defeat provoked his supporters to insurrection. Whatever the sources of the sickness in the American body politic, higher turnout shows no sign of effecting a cure.

With that background, it’s interesting to read a paper published last week by a team of authors (Yoder et al.) at the Democracy & Polarization Lab at Stanford University. They are looking at the causes of increased turnout, and particularly on the effect of postal voting (which in the US is called “absentee voting”); as they say, “While the two parties disagree vehemently over its value, nearly everyone on both sides seems to agree that it increases turnout and helps Democrats.”

After studying the data, Yoder et al. conclude that both these pieces of conventional wisdom are mistaken. Once there is a substantial level of public engagement with an election, changes to voting opportunities, they argue, have very little effect on turnout:

[I]n high-salience elections like 2020, there are probably very few marginal voters who base their decision to participate on the relative costs of one mode of voting over another, so long as the inconvenience and difficulty of in-person voting remains within reasonable bounds.

This is consistent with past research on no-excuse postal voting. And if increased postal voting doesn’t actually drive increased turnout, then it probably doesn’t drive any partisan outcome either. Sure enough, while the authors document the very large partisan gap in use of postal voting, they say that “the increased rate of absentee voting among Democrats comes in large part from their substitution away from early in-person voting.” While they cannot rule out its effect sometimes being decisive, “the evidence suggests that the effect on the relative turnout of Democrats vs. Republicans is quite modest, probably so modest as to rarely change election outcomes, and could be zero.”

Analyst Harry Enten at CNN looks at the Stanford team’s analysis, among other sources, and draws a more general moral: “high turnout had little to do with why Trump ended up being a one-term president. Trump lost because he was an unusually unpopular president, and he likely would have been defeated if turnout looked like it did in 2016.”

This, it seems to me, is the big thing missing from the popular narrative of the last twenty years. Increased turnout is a good thing; the more people engage with democracy, the better. But in terms of deciding election results, it seems to be a fifth wheel. As I said back in December, “The story of voting behavior can pretty much be told without any reference to turnout at all.”

If that’s right, then it casts the current debates over electoral reform in a new light. Republican attempts to restrict postal voting, as Enten points out, rest on a misunderstanding; the people who use it to vote Democrat won’t go away if that option is taken away from them, they will turn up in person and vote Democrat. Conversely, Democrat moves to expand voting options might be praiseworthy for giving people more choice, but are unlikely to deliver much partisan advantage.

That’s not to say that the creaky American electoral system isn’t in need of reform. There are some very worthwhile measures in the Democrats’ reform package, especially its attack on partisan gerrymandering. (As is usually the case with such omnibus bills, there’s a lot of rubbish as well.) Just don’t expect much from expanding – or reducing – turnout.


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