Fair Weather Voting

Fair Weather Voting August 23, 2008

Voter turn out tends to be lower in the United States than in many other developed countries, and tends to be lower in the United States today than it was in previous generations. For some, this is cause for concern, a sign that American democracy isn’t working as it should. Me, not so much. If you consider that one big motivator for voting is fear about what will happen if the wrong guy gets elected, the fact that voter turnout is lower in places like the United States and Switzerland than in other places may be a sign of the strength of our system of government, rather than a signal of its decay. It’s probably also the case that the idiosyncrasies of America’s system of government – we hold elections every two years, but only elect our President every four years – might tend to skew the result (As for why turnout might be lower now than it was prior to 1972, see here).

Until recently, I had thought that there might be another factor serving to drive voter turnout lower than what it otherwise would be: the electoral college. As Al Gore supporters know all too well, the winner in a presidential election is determined not by who wins the popular vote, but by who gets the most votes in the electoral college. In every Presidential races, there are only a small number of “swing states” that actually could be won by one candidate or the other. Most states, particularly in recent times, are “safe,” which is to say that the winner of the popular vote in that state is fairly certain. We might expect, therefore, that turnout would be higher in swing states (where people think that there votes might matter) than in safe states (where the outcome of the election is known in advance) and that this might serve to make total voter turnout lower than it otherwise would be.

There’s only one problem with this theory: it appears to be contradicted by the facts. Looking at a state by state breakdown of turnout in recent elections (here is data for 2004, and 2000), there doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation between states with high turnout rates and states with close races.

I did however, notice a correlation between high voter turnout and another variable: cold weather. States with the highest voter turnout rates (Minnesota, Maine, Alaska, South Dakota, New Hampshire, etc.) tended to be ones where the weather is really cold, whereas states with warmer and/or better weather tend to have lower rates of voter turnout (The state with the lowest turnout rate in 2004? Hawaii). You might think that bad weather would drive down turnout, as people would be less willing to venture out of doors to their polling places if the temperature was 20 below than if it was a nice balmy 72. But just the opposite appears to be the case.

It could just be a fluke, of course. Or maybe better weather raises the opportunity cost of voting (who wants to stand in line at a polling place when you could be enjoying a nice day at the beach). In any event, it would appear that those who want us to worry about the possible effects of global warming may have a new arrow in their argumentative quiver. It’s not just the polar bear, democracy itself may be at risk!

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  • If you consider that one big motivator for voting is fear about what will happen if the wrong guy gets elected, the fact that voter turnout is lower in places like the United States and Switzerland than in other places may be a sign of the strength of our system of government, rather than a signal of its decay.

    FEAR that prevents citizens from participation in government is a “sign of the strength of our system”??

    Uh, yeah.

  • S.B.

    That’s backwards, Michael. BA was saying that in the USA, maybe people are NOT as afraid of the wrong guy getting elected, and hence don’t have as much of a motive to vote.

  • Ahh misread it. Thank you for the clarification, SB.

  • Zak

    I think cold weather and high voting patterns also correspond with areas largely settled by the puritans and their heirs (or Scandinavians who largely came into the US through areas like Michigan and eastern Wisconsin where the dominant English-language culture was descended from New Englanders). The political culture was thus shaped by notions of civic participation and responsibilities under a system of ordered liberty that wasn’t present in other regions of the US, which had very different conceptions of liberty and the role of the state. I admit, I’ve poached this argument quite a bit from David Hacket Fischer (Albion’s Seed), but I think it’s worth considering. And I wonder what it’s implications for Catholic Social Thought are. Historically in Catholicism in America, what has Catholicism shaped any broad cultural idea of the relationship of liberty and the state, or have Catholics assimilated the (various) Protestant cultures and ideas around them?

  • blackadderiv

    Zak,

    I had the same thought, but voting seems to be high in cold states regardless of the ethnic make up of the place. Alaska, for example, had a turnout rate in 2004 of over 70%, and my impression is that Alaska is not populated mainly with puritans or Swedes.

  • Zak

    The high level of corruption in Alaskan politics also goes against the civic-minded culture argument (although it could be driven by the rent-seeking, oil-based nature of the Alaskan economy). That might suggest Alaska as an exception to the rule. I would still suggest that the southern political culture generates a predisposition against civic participation, while the post-puritan political culture of New England and the Upper Midwest generates a predisposition for participation. It isn’t just culture, it’s also institutions. Small towns in New England have a long history of participitory governance by the whole (male) population, which those in the South and Southwest (and urban areas) don’t. If local government institutions in Alaska conform more to that model, that might have an effect. I wonder about the impact of the Alaskan native population (15% of the total) on political culture and voting rates.

    I would think relative economic equality would also lead to higher participation, since it would seem less like the political landscape would be controlled by an elite. But that would seem to argue against high participation in Alaska, where politics has been dominated by a few families for years (for example Stevens, Murkowski, Young, and Begich).

    Alaska, by the way, does have a higher than usual percentage of Scandinavians (although higher than usual doesn’t really mean high).

  • S.B.

    Could it have anything to do with the polarization of congressional districts? I’ve been reading “The Big Sort,” and the author mentions that in closely-contested districts, voter turnout is higher. That necessarily means that in districts where Republicans or Democrats predominate, voter turnout would be lower (why take the trouble to vote if one side is sure to win anyway?)

  • blackadderiv

    Stuart,

    I don’t think colder states have a higher proportion of contested congressional districts that do other states, but I don’t know. If contested districts were more or less evenly distributed between warm and cold states, then the fact turnout in contested districts was higher than in non-contested ones wouldn’t be inconsistent with turnout being higher in cold states than in warm ones.

  • Zak

    More single-district states (Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, New Hampshire, Wyoming, Montana) in the cold, cold north. That means no gerrymandering for partisan purposes. All those states have elected both Republicans and dems for House, Senate, or governor in this decade, meaning they can be contested (Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming are probably the most partisan, but each has had a governor from the non-majority party this decade). So it mgiht work.

    But having looked at the data more closely, I’m sticking to my Scandinavians and post-puritans argument, with a boost for Oregon because of its absentee voting laws and a boost for Florida and Ohio because of GOTV efforts in highly contested swing states.