A Flathead Valley, Montana, based independent journal of observation, analysis, and opinion.

Mail Ballot Files

7 November 2010

2010 Montana voter turnout lowest since at least 1980

Updated with easier to read graphs. In 2010, Montana’s voting eligible population turnout rate was 48.3 percent, the lowest turnout since at least 1980. Because more than 100,000 Montanas who were eligible to vote did not register to vote, the turnout rate of registered voters was considerably higher, 55.9 percent. Please see the charts below for more details.

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24 September 2007

Why mail ballots are bad

Yesterday, during an exchange of emails with a legislator on what I would call government reform, the recent trend of cities (Whitefish, Missoula, among others) holding municipal elections by mail ballot arose. I said that I thought holding these elections — indeed all elections — by mail was a terrible mistake. He asked, “Why are mail-in ballots bad?”

In my reply I made three points:

First, it turns election day into election month (or some extended period). If ballots are cast during a long period of time instead of on a single day, voters are no longer making a decision after having been exposed to the same events. They are no longer applying their knowledge and beliefs to a shared set of facts. I know that reality departs a bit from that ideal, but the principle is sound and I think we should make every attempt to observe it.

Suppose, for example, that you are on trial for murder…falsely accused, of course. The prosecutor begins a powerful presentation, but you know the facts and law are on your side, and you look forward to presenting your case and exposing the prosecutor as a witch hunter. After what seems an eternity, the prosecution rests — but before you can begin your defense, the judge turns to the jury and says, “Now that you have half of the facts, you know all you need to know to make an intelligent decision. You may cast your vote any time you like. Just write ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ and mail your ballot to the bailiff. Don't bother returning to court unless you want to. We’ll let you know if we need a second ballot.”

Second, I have concerns over security. Our system of casting secret ballots in polling places is the result of decades of efforts to clean-up elections. A public polling place protects voters. They can cast their ballot in the privacy of the voting booth without coercion. No one can tap them on the shoulder and say, “Honey, in this family we vote for Republicans. Blacken the circle by Jones' name.” Outside the polling place, that protection disappears. Human nature being what it is, I have no difficulty imagining situations in which a dictatorial member of a household sits his family around a table while they mark their ballots according to his instructions. Nor do I have difficulty imagining votes being bought and sold in the privacy of a home.

I also think it’s unwise to have marked ballots accumulating for days or weeks in the offices of clerks and recorders. Too many things can go wrong.

Third, government is a community affair, and I think an election should be an eyeball-to-eyeball community event. We vote as individuals, but I think we should cast our votes in the presence of our neighbors to remind ourselves that our votes have consequences for others as well as for ourselves. Going to our neighborhood polling place is one of the glues that hold our communities together — and it’s a much stronger glue than the adhesive on an envelope or the back of a stamp.

Montana's stampede to conducting elections by mail ballot continues to perplex me. There is, as I've noted before, some evidence mail ballots improve turnout in some low interest elections such as school board elections — but perishing little or no evidence that it improves turnout in general elections. The best cure for low turnout elections is moving them to the general election in even-numbered years.

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29 January 2007

Does switching to a mail ballot system boost turnout?

Vote by mail advocates claim that it does — in an oped piece in the New York Times, The Voting Booth at the Kitchen Table, published on 21 August 2001, the secretaries of state Bill Bradbury of Oregon and Sam Reed of Washington argued that “..vote-by-mail dramatically increases turnout in national elections during the off-Presidential years when voters’ interest tends to drop.”

That assertion is questionable, to put it kindly. Before taking a closer look at it, however, it’s necessary to decide which statistic — there are several — to use to measure turnout. Bradbury and Reed chose the percentage of registered voters who voted, but that statistic is best suited to election administration and get-out-the-vote efforts. A better statistic for measuring turnout is the percentage of the Voting Eligible Population that voted. VEP is the U.S. Census Bureau’s voting age (age 18 and older) population adjusted for not eligible to vote groups such as foreign nationals and disqualified felons. Academic researchers measure turnout using VEP — and so should legislators and public officials when considering changes in elections policy.

Using VEP data supplied by Dr. Michael McDonald of the United States Election Project at George Mason University, I looked at turnout rates for Oregon and Montana for elections from 1980 through 2006, summarizing my finding in the two graphs below.

Table 1. General Election Turnout, Oregon & Montana (PDF)

Turnout 1980-2006, Oregon and Montana

Discussion, Table 1. The turnout rates for both states are quite similar. Sometimes Oregon's turnout is a percentage point or two higher. Sometimes that honor goes to Montana. The differences are so slight, however, that they could be the result of any number of factors, among them local contests of great importance and interest.

Table 2. Ranges and Norms (PDF)

Turnout ranges and means

Discussion, Table 2. Oregon shows a bit more variation than Montana, but the distributions as displayed by the box plots are similar. Please note that the Y axis uses different limits than the Y axis for Table 1.

John Fortier of the Brookings-American Enterprise Institute joint Elections Reform Project published (October, 2006) a fascinating monograph, Absentee and Early Voting, in which he summarized academic findings on turnout and mail and absentee voting. He found that:

Montana already uses mail ballot for some local elections, in particular those spring school board and levy elections that always produce shamefully low turnouts, so going to a mail ballot for the general election is not likely to have an effect on turnout for school elections. There would be a dramatic upturn in turnout, of course, if the school elections were moved to the general election ballot.

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25 January 2007

County officials behind effort to end Election Day as we know it

Much of the push for voting by mail in Montana comes from the Montana Association of Counties (MACo). At its annual conference meeting in Bozeman, on 27 September 2006, MACo passed Resolution 2006-11, which has this punch line:

It is the intent of the Montana Association of Counties to seek authority for local governments to conduct all primary, special and general elections entirely by mail, amending Title 13-19-104.

According to a story in the 17 December 2006 Helena Independent Record, closing polling places is MACo’s top legislative priority for 2007.

MACo’s principal motivation is financial. It’s members think voting by mail will save money. (In the excerpts below, from the IR's story, the headings are mine.)

Dubious assertions

Murray and county Clerk and Recorder Paulette DeHart said county officials believe the proposal — which would give counties the option of holding elections through the mail or at traditional polling places — would save money and increase voter turnout.

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Voters would have 28 days to return postage-paid ballots to election officials, Murray said. Similar laws have been enacted in Oregon and Washington, DeHart said.

The Montana Clerk and Recorders Association is leading the effort for change with MACo’s full support, Murray said.

[Lewis and Clark] County recently spent $19,000 to upgrade polling places to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards, and new voting machines for disabled people, supplied by the secretary of state, are counties’ responsibility to maintain and replace — DeHart said Lewis and Clark County will spend about $35,000 next year for that maintenance.

DeHart said she expects the county always will keep those machines at her office for disabled people, but said taxpayers will save thousands if commissioners exercise an option to close polling places and send ballots out through the mail.

Election judges growing older and more scarce

Another issue is peoplepower. DeHart said national statistics show the average election judge is 71, and it’s increasingly difficult to find people willing to commit to long hours with low pay.

Convenience touted

She thinks mail ballots are the “wave of the future” — people will be willing to vote from their kitchen tables instead of waiting in line at polling stations, she said.

“We are a generation of convenience, and our children are even more so,” DeHart said.

Fraud? Not to worry

Some have raised concerns that mail ballots could increase the risk of election fraud, Murray said, but DeHart said she’s got faith in the county’s signature-verification process.

Murray said the measure would create a new wrinkle for politicians trying to appeal to voters who would have the option of voting four weeks before election day.

That wrinkle is the same wrinkle the Montana’s reprehensible “no excuses” absentee ballot system introduces into the election. It’s the functional equivalent of letting jurors decide a case before the trial is over. Why that doesn’t seem to concern Murray, DeHart, and their colleagues both troubles and puzzles me.

Equally mystifying is the MACo resolution’s initial whereas, which states in part:

…The law recognizes that sound public policy concerning the conduct of elections often requires the balancing of various elements of the public interest that are sometimes in conflict. Among these factors are the public’s interest in fair and accurate elections, the election of those who will govern or represent and cost-effective administration of all functions of government, including the conduct of elections; and…

First, is “the public’s interest in a fair and accurate election” a clumsy way of saying “the public has a right to fair and accurate elections?” I certainly hope so. Second, does MACo think that the “election of those who will govern” is in conflict with “the public’s interest in fair and accurate elections?” If so, it’s time to call for the fraud squad. If not, it’s high time to fire the person who drafted the resolution.

My interpretation of the first whereas is that MACo and Montana’s Clerk and Recorders are parsimonious souls who dread the cost and effort of elections. They approach elections not as a labor of love, but as ordeals that take all of the fun out of their jobs. Voting by mail promises to lower costs and make their jobs easier, so they support it.

Now, I fully agree that conducting an election as a one-day decision-making event is a lot of work and costs money. But nothing is as expensive as an election that is not fair and accurate, and therefore I think that the time, effort, and cost of conducting an election in the traditional manner is an investment that returns itself many times over.

If, as DeHart alleges, “it’s increasingly difficult to find people willing to commit to long hours with low pay,” and I have no reason to doubt her, there are solutions other than voting by mail. The easiest would be making Election Day a county and school holiday and staffing the polls with teachers and other county employees.

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22 January 2007

Missoula legislator wants vote by mail system in Montana

Rep. Diane SandsWant to avoid standing by your neighbor as you wait to vote? Rep. Diane Sands (D-Missoula) is riding to your rescue. Sometime soon, probably later this week, the text of LC1503, Sands’ “County option for mail ballot elections,” (update, 23 January; the title now is “Require specified elections be conducted by mail”) will be released and a bill number assigned. Right now, the drafters are still putting her ideas into standard legislative language.

But we already know what she wants. Sands spent a year in Oregon, which has a mail ballot system, and liked voting in the sanctity of her kitchen instead of in the hurly-burly of a polling place. According to a story, Election reflux — Sands thinks it’s time for mail ballots, in the 4 December 2006 Missoulian:

When she received her first Oregon ballot in the mail that included some 30 or so ballot measures Sands found it particularly helpful to have time to sit down and really think about what or who she was voting for or against.

“(I spent) an entire afternoon going through all of the issues and taking several hours to vote that ballot,” she recalled, noting that the four-page Missoula County ballot this time around solidified her memory of that Oregon voting experience.

I simply study the sample ballot and the issues before going to my polling place, so I’m not impressed by that argument.

Nor am I impressed by her argument that voting by mail increases voter turnout:

Sands said Oregon now has voter participation topping 80 percent on average. While it’s still not 100 percent it’s a far cry higher than what Montana and many other states normally achieve.

That voter participation figure is the percentage of registered voters who cast votes, not the much more meaningful statistic of voting age residents who cast votes. Oregon, like Montana, does not publish that statistic (Washington, which also has a vote by mail ballot system, does), probably because the percentage of voting age residents who cast votes is much lower than the percentage of registered voters who cast votes.

Curtis Gans, at the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, has published several reports on turnout. According to Gans, in the general election of 2002, the percentage of eligible voters (see the excerpts below) casting votes was 48.02 in Montana, 50.53 in Oregon, and 40.96 in Washington. The difference between Montana and Oregon could be due to local factors other than voting systems.

Eligible Voters v. Registered Voters

Turnout is NOT the percentage of those registered who voted. There are three basic reasons for this: a. Using registration as a denominator does not account for the whole of the electorate, including those who are not registered. Thus, it gives a false picture of true citizen engagement. b. Changes in registration law can dramatically affect the figures. If the nation adopts, as it did, a registration law that provides for national mail registration, registration at motor vehicle bureaus and at social service agencies, registration will go up but turnout of those registered will decline artificially by a greater amount than it does when using the entire eligible electorate as a denominator. c. Registration figures are subject to the fluctuations of election administration. If a state conducts a thorough purge of its registration lists close to election, its registration figures will be lower and thus its percentage of registered voting will be higher. But if registration lists are not so purged, as they are not in many states, the figures for registration will be higher and the turnout based on these inflated registration figures will be lower. Consider how distorted a turnout percentage using registration as a base would be in a state such as Alaska, which because of lack of regular list cleaning and potential flaws with the Census Bureau’s estimates of the state’s eligible population, registration figures are regularly in excess of 100 percent of the eligible vote.

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The Eligible Vote – The Denominator for Determining Turnout: The eligible vote in this report is the number of people residing in the United States who are 18 years of age or over minus the number of non-citizens residing in the United States who are 18 years of age and over as of April 1. It is an interpolated figure from the 2000 Census, based on the methodology outlined below.

For years, CSAE and every other reputable organization working in this field had used the Census Bureau’s estimates of November age-eligible population (VAP) to determine turnout. That figure came under legitimate criticism because it included non-citizens; convicted felons (in most states) and, in some states, ex-felons; and people deemed mentally incompetent in institutions who could not vote and did not include citizens residing in other countries, citizens naturalized during the election year and the citizen portion of the Census’ undercount, all of whom could vote but were not part of the VAP estimate. The Census Bureau has ceased providing its VAP estimates.

For years also, Dr. Walter Dean Burnham, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, has been producing a denominator of age-eligible citizens (age-eligible population minus age-eligible non-citizens, interpolated by state and nation from and between decennial Censuses). After some study of this matter, CSAE has come to believe that this denominator is the best for determining turnout…

There are other compelling arguments against both voting by mail and unrestricted absentee voting, and I'll present these after Sands' bill is introduced.

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