Saturday, April 25, 2009

Voter Turnout

Fowler, James (2006) “Altruism and Turnout” Journal of Politics 68 (3) 674-683.
Baldassare, Mark. 2006. “California’s Exclusive Electorate”
Blais, André. 2006. “What Affects Voter Turnout?”
Annual Review of Political Science. Vol. 9: 111-125
U.S. Elections Project. 2008 Unofficial Turnout.

The idea that people vote out of altruism makes a little bit of sense, there has to be something more than self-interest when people vote or they wouldn’t vote. However, the research doesn’t show that altruism is the variable that makes people turn out. The definition of altruism that was used in the paper, bearing costs so that someone else receives a benefit, seems to be a misnomer. Altruism is doing things selflessly, and unselfishly being concerned for the welfare of others. The definition of altruism used in the paper isn’t the common definition of altruism, and so is a bit misleading. Also, it is not clear from the research that people vote for the benefit of others. It may be that what the author sees as altruism is really a selfish act – people exercising their right to vote because they want to – rather than being unselfish. However, under the author’s definition of altruism, this behavior would fit into being altruistic. Therefore, I think his definition of altruism is too inclusive, and too off-the-charts to be helpful in defining a voting variable.
However, altruism plays no part in places where there is compulsory voting. The Blais article examines the current research on compulsory voting and determines that the research is unclear on the needed punishment to compel turnout. Blais looked at the research in voting patterns and decided that socioeconomic class matters in voting, which translates across nations so that poor nations have lower turnout that rich nations (although he was clear to make the distinction that it is at the ends of the spectrum this matters, and not as a matter of degree). However, he found that there was a large lack in understanding how compulsory voting and competitive systems matter in relation to voter turnout.
If the PEW research and the initial 2008 election turnout results are any indication, not having compulsory voting and not having competition in the U.S. doesn’t help turn out. In effect, we are proving the negative of Blais’ point: a country without competition and without compulsory voting has low turnout. This states the U.S.’ situation clearly. The turnout in the U.S. is very low. It has been put at 61.7% for the 2008 elections. In a year when the sitting President had the lowest approval ratings ever, where the candidate was the first African American candidate for President, and where the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee was so bad that people didn’t want her elected – there was still only 61.7% turnout. There wasn’t much competition. People knew before they went to the polls who would win. People who voted late – like the western states and some of the mid-west states, knew who was winning before they even voted. This could also be a cause of the low turnout: why turnout when you know the winner.
There’s one other point to make about Fowler’s research – he used primary votes, and a primary vote in which there was no Presidential primary. In California, which is where he did his research, primary turnout is notoriously low. This research was conducted before the Democrats opened their primary in California, and so the only people who turned out for a primary election were Republicans and Democrats – but California has a large “decline-to-state” group that votes in Presidential elections and state-wide elections but not in primaries. This is a drastic error in his research, and he didn’t show how to account for it. In effect, he was discounting thousands of votes because they don’t, or weren’t able to, cast a vote in a primary election.

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