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Research Suggests Mass. Election Reform Could Be On Wrong Track

First in a new, occasional segment called “Policy Shop,” in which WBUR political reporter David Scharfenberg looks at the biggest public policy questions in New England — and the sometimes-surprising things social science research tells us about those questions.

Here, with host Deborah Becker, Scharfenberg analyzes the implications of an early voting bill the that is on the verge of being approved by the Massachusetts Legislature.

David Scharfenberg: After years of debate, the Legislature is on the verge of approving a big election reform package. If the bill passes, you’ll finally be able to register to vote online — believe it or not, it’s all on paper right now. And you’ll also be able to vote up to 10 days before an election. It’s called early voting and it’s already in place in 32 states and Washington, D.C.

Early voting does not boost turnout, research shows. (Eric Gay/AP)

Early voting does not boost turnout, research shows. (Eric Gay/AP)

Deborah Becker: That sounds like a good thing. Is it?

Well, there are some good reasons to put early voting in place. It can make voting more convenient. It can even cut down on costs — you don’t need as many poll workers on Election Day if half the electorate has already voted.

But the most compelling argument for early voting — and you hear it here in Massachusetts — is that it will boost turnout and increase participation in our democracy. And you’d think that stretching an election out over 10 days would do just that.

But here’s the thing: The research just does not show any significant gains.

I wanted to know why. So I talked to Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies election reform. He said the people who take advantage of early voting are people who would vote anyway:

People who are higher income, higher education, more partisan, more informed, more ideological. Really all the things that predict voting in the first place are the same variables that would predict whether a person takes advantage of early voting.

So it’s the political junkies who are going to the polls early.

So, early voting does not boost turnout.

Exactly. And Burden’s research — it’s a little unique in this respect — suggests early voting can actually depress voter turnout by 3.5 to 5.5 percentage points.

His working theory is that a traditional Election Day — with all the media hoopla and people standing out with signs — exerts social pressure to vote.

In contrast, when you have lots of early voting, Election Day is sort of the end of a long process and doesn’t have quite the firepower that it once had. And so early voting has the potential to sap the power of Election Day.

I should say here that President Obama’s recent success in pushing supporters to cast early ballots in parts of the country has some researchers eager to take another look. But the research so far is pretty clear: Early voting does not boost turnout.

Are there other reforms that would make a difference?

Well, 10 states and Washington, D.C. have something called Election Day registration — or EDR — in place. And it’s just what it sounds it like: You can show up on Election Day, register on the spot and vote.

Here’s Burden on why it’s a more effective reform:

EDR solves a problem for voters. It takes away the requirement that a person has to register in one place at one time, in advance of Election Day, and then show up at a different place at a different time on Election Day to vote.

With Election Day registration, Burden says, people who get interested in the closing days of a campaign — people who are not political junkies — can just show up on Election Day and vote. They’re not missing some voter registration deadline that passed a month ago. His research suggests Election Day registration can boost turnout as much as 7 points.

Did Massachusetts lawmakers consider same-day registration?

The state Senate actually included it in their bill, but the House did not. And advocates don’t expect it to survive the House-Senate conference committee going on right now.

One possible reason: A last-minute surge in voter interest — new voters jumping into the process — doesn’t generally favor incumbents. And it’s incumbents who are voting on this legislation.

So, we could end up with a bill that makes voting easier, but does not really do anything to bring new voters into the process, and potentially could make it worse.

That’s right. Advocates say we’ve got election reform with a missing piece.

Now, I should add that even the rosiest research on that missing piece — Election Day registration — suggests a pretty modest bump in voter turnout. And all of the political scientists I talked to said the initial hopes around election reform of any kind have not really been realized.

Here’s University of Maryland government and politics professor Michael Hanmer:

My argument is that, you know, simply flipping the switch and changing the electoral rules won’t have much effect on turnout because there are motivational factors that are really at the core of what makes somebody want to vote. And those are harder to change.

Political scientists say it’s really structural differences that explain the sometimes-breathtaking differences in voter turnout between, say, Minnesota and Texas — we’re talking 25 percent higher voter participation in Minnesota than in Texas in the last presidential election.

A state with a wealthy population, and close-fought partisan battles that gin up voter interest, is going to draw more voters to the polls.

Now, we’ve got wealth in Massachusetts. But we’re not much of a battleground; we’re a deep blue state. So if Democrats in the state Legislature really want to boost turnout, they’ll probably have to hope for a stronger Republican Party.

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  • graxspoo

    I don’t believe it’s the case that only the political junkies take advantage of early voting. This will stretch voting over weekends, which can be a significant convenience for many people. Also, voter drives can start at churches on Sunday. I have read that a significant number of minority and low income voters in Ohio take advantage of early voting along these lines, which is one reason the Republicans in that state are set on rolling back these rules. They wouldn’t care if it were only the political junkies going to the polls.

  • MikeLaBonte

    It just isn’t good journalism to have Barry Burden making counter-intuitive assertions with zero evidence given. I’m not saying the evidence doesn’t exist, see http://earlyvoting.net/ for example. Citations and numbers please!

    Likewise there is evidence supporting Mr. Burden’s assertion that election day registration would be more effective, but none was given.

    At the end of the day what we need is to find out what holds people back from voting. A survey asking that question would be a good addition to this story.

    • crescentfang

      Try a lack of choice. I don’t mind writing in names but most people would like to think their vote counted for something.

      • Walter_Peterson

        You have hit the nail on the head. Single member districts with plurality voting leave too few choices for most people. Too many elections are decided before the ballots are even printed.

  • JonFrum

    Right now, virtually everyone who wants to vote does vote. People aren’t kept away from polling places with police dogs or cattle prods. Whether I vote or not is none of your business. The only people who want to increase voter participation are those who believe that it will help their party. Please don’t tell me that this is being done out of altruism. If these changes were expected to increase Republican votes, they wouldn’t see the light of day.

  • crescentfang

    Massachusetts is a one party state so those who show up do so out of duty or misplaced optimism. Scott Brown was the only interesting, or interested, politician around and he has left for greener pastures.

  • Henry Ko

    A society of merit is a society of chores performed rather than success achieved; a society subject to the whims of those who judge merit.

  • carl_christian

    Instant Runoff Voting — aka Ranked Choice — is the real reform that we should be talking about. It works in many parts of the world & it brings back alienated voters who understand that their vote really does play a democratic ‘voice of the people’ role in electing by majority rule the best candidate. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instant-runoff_voting for some more background.
    And shame on the WBUR reporting staff for not bringing this important voting reform into the public discussion much more significantly.

  • EverPerfectUnion

    How about real electoral reform. Turn over redistricting to a bipartisan commission so districts do not look like the Cape.

    • Walter_Peterson

      Proportional representation from large, multi-member districts with fixed areas, like counties and major cities should replace gerrymandered single member districts. Minority representation would be easier to achieve than by drawing spaghetti shaped districts.

  • ladyoptimist

    A better idea would be the now-circulating suggestion of making Election Day a national holiday so nearly everyone would be able to vote, unencumbered by long work hours, child care issues (you can bring your kids), etc. Face it – human nature is to procrastinate. Give people a week to vote and I think the end result could be lower turn-out. People will leave voting until the last minute, then get distracted or waylaid, and never get there. We’ve all done that with other things, right? And, I do agree with EverPerfect about redistricting. Why do we turn the chicken coop over to the foxes? Let’s have the commission also determine legislative salaries, while we’re at it!

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