Yesterday, Twitter user DukeDuluth wrote the following which was picked up and re-Tweeted by many anxious for something to discuss in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses:
State with highest % voter turnout in most recent general election should have first presidential contest. Reward Democracy.
I will admit to having been involved in past efforts to study the primary scheduling process – so I will walk away from any discussion about whether DukeDuluth’s idea has merit. But his idea is a golden opportunity to discuss the question of turnout – especially since the concept is going to get a lot of airtime over the next year.
Generally speaking, turnout is the proportion of voters who participate in an election, usually expressed as a percentage. That’s where it stops being simple. Here’s why.
First of all, we have to decide what data to put into the fraction used to calculate turnout. The numerator is votes – but which votes? In a Presidential election year, this is usually votes for President, but even this number doesn’t likely capture the full extent of voters who cast a ballot and fail to record a vote for president – intentionally or not. As George Mason professor (and turnout guru) Michael McDonaldexplains:
Some people do not cast a vote, even for president. Some failures to record votes are true errors, such as unrecorded votes originating from the infamous hanging chads of the 2000 Florida election. It is important to realize that some people intentionally abstain. for example, the 2004 presidential election 3,688 Nevadans voted for “None of These Candidates” (Nevada is the only state that allows this option). Under-Votes are such blank or indecernable votes. Over-votes occur when a voter selects multiple candidates when only one is acceptable.A better measure of participation might be Total Ballots Cast, which includes all under-votes and over-votes, but does not include rejected provisional ballots, which are often cast when a voter’s eligibility is in question. (Residual vote is the difference between total ballots cast and vote for highest office.) The problem is that most, but not all, states report the total ballots cast.
The good news is that an increasing number of states report total ballots cast, which makes it possible to estimate the total ballots cast for the few non-reporting states. National total ballots cast is therefore an estimate using the correspondence between the vote for highest office and total turnout for the states that provide both numbers.
Once you’ve settled on a numerator, it’s time to choose a denominator – and here’s where it gets really interesting.