The Bureaucratic Case for Voter Registration Reform

I've written multiple times, on many different blogs, about the need for fundamental voter registration reform.  Normally I make that case on behalf of the young voter/voter registration community.  The most recent data from CIRCLE put young voter turnout in 2008 at 51.1% - one of the highest rates ever, yet still lower than any other portion the electorate.  But we also know that upwards of 80% of all registered young voters actually make it to the polls to cast their ballot - a turnout rate not much lower than that of the rest of the electorate.  

The conclusion is simple, and one that we are all familiar with: voter registration is a barrier to participation, and reforming it could well be the single most effective means of creating lasting gains in voter turnout rates, especially among young people.  Such reforms are in the works, and the proposed changes usually include some form of automatic registration and/or election day registration failsafes.  

One of the biggest hurdles in achieving such reform is convincing the various local Secretaries of State that such reforms are in their interest and, rather than increase their burdens, will make their jobs easier.  Secretaries of State will wield enormous influence over the outcome of a voter registration reform debate.  Without their support, it will be difficult to convince Senators or Congressmen to sign on to any voter reform legislation.  That's why a new report by the US PIRG Education Fund on the cost effectiveness of voter registration reform is so important: Saving Dollars, Saving Democracy - Cost Savings for Local Elections Officials Through Voter Registration Modernization.

In a survey of 100 counties, the report found that:

  • Over $33,467,910.00 of public money was spent on simple registration and error-correction issues in 2008.

  • That equals $86,977.00 of the elections budgets in counties with populations under 50,000.

  • The average office in counties with 50,000 to 200,000 people spent $248,091.00.

  • The average county elections office in jurisdictions of 200,000 to around one million people spent $1,079,610.00.

  • Some of the largest counties in our survey spent far more than this average, for example St Louis County, with a population of 995,118, conservatively spent over 3 million dollars on registration implementation and issues in the 2008 cycle.  

In addition to the monetary costs of the current system, the report also outlines other inefficiencies that current boards of election routinely face, and which could be overcome through sensible reform of the registration process:

  • Missing Information: inaccurate, incomplete, duplicated, or illegible forms;
  • Citizen Confusion: a lack of clarity for any particular registrant concerning citizenship status;
  • Overtime/Staffing: there are many problems and costs associated with hiring part-time staff or paying overtime to data-entry floods of forms in time for Election Day;
  • Acknowledgment Cards: some states require a card be sent to registrants to confirm registration details;
  • Reaching voters in rural areas: states face challenges when reaching out to register eligible citizens across a geographically complex rural jurisdiction; and  
  • Provisional ballot printings, mailings, and outreach: once a registrant is not accurately entered, HAVA requires that they be allowed to cast a day-of-election provisional ballot. States must provide said ballot, and then in order for it to count, states need to follow up with the voter and state to determine their registration status.

The report makes a number of recommendations on what effective, efficient reform would look like:

  1. A federal mandate should be passed to require affirmative and automatic registration. Specified and privacy-protected data transfers and information sharing should occur from federal and state databases to the state voter rolls as a means of continuously updating the list.

    By eliminating the data entry and duplicate and error verification follow-up responsibilities of local officials, there will be large cost savings at the county level.  

  2. Federal funding should be provided to make it possible for states to implement this mandate.  
  3. States should also use specified private database transfers or information sharing to keep citizens on the rolls permanently at their most up-to-date address.  
  4. States should perform same-day balloting as a catch-all for citizens.

The full report offers regional, state, and municipal data on all of the inefficiencies outlined above.  At some point in the next few years, we are likely to face a fight in congress over voter registration reform.  Ground zero in that fight will be convincing local Secretaries of State that they should be in favor of reform rather than the status quo.  This new report by US PIRG Education Fund is an invaluable information for those looking to construct effective arguments in favor of reform.

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Modernizing our Voter Registration System

As I've mentioned in a number of recent posts, I think that one of the most important projects for the progressive youth community in the 111th Congress is the passage of major voter registration reform legislation.

As I've written many times in the past, voter turnout is about access, not apathy.  There are no numbers yet for 2008, but in 2004, 81.6% of all registered 18 - 29 year olds voted.  The problem is not that young people register and then forget or abstain from voting; the problem is that, due to a variety of factors, young people are registered in far fewer numbers than older portions of the electorate.

Today, the Millennial generation is in a position to push for broad policy changes - on energy and climate issues, education issues, and more - thanks in large part to the massive youth turnout and their key role in electing President Obama.  Retaining that power beyond one congressional session or Presidential term will require a repeat performance at the polls year in and year out.   Reforming our voter registration laws and removing so many of the barriers that keep young Americans registered at low rates is key to solidifying this newfound political power.  So I'm super excited to report that a coalition seems to be forming to push forward Voter Registration Modernization legislation during the current Congress.

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Obama Pollster: Expand 50 State Strategy with Youth/Minority Outreach

Cross-posted from Future Majority.

Via Marc Ambinder, I found this memo from Cornell Belcher - pollster for the Obama campaign and the DNC - to Howard Dean.  The memo describes the arc of Dean's tenure as Chairman of the DNC, noting how the political landscape has changed, how the Democrats' new "pluralist majority" arose, and what the DNC must do in the coming years to solidify those gains.  

Belcher identifies three main trends behind the Democrats rise to power in 2006 and 2008:

  • Democrats eroded the Republican brand on key issues (culture of corruption).  This was especially potent in 2006.

  • Democrats competed more broadly and successfully in moderate and Republican areas - aka the 50 State Strategy.

  • Democrats performed better among a range of demographic groups, notably in communities of color and among youth.

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Mapping the Youth Vote Impact

CIRCLE has updated their youth turnout numbers.  You'll remember that these estimates are based on exit polls and the overall vote count.  As absentee and early voting ballots get counted, the totals rise, changing the turnout numbers.  CIRCLE now estimates that:

  • 23 million young voters cast a ballot on Tuesday, an increase of 3.4 million over 2004.

  • Youth turnout will likely top off at 52 - 53%.  That would rival the 1992 turnout, and fall just short of the all time record of 55.4% set in 1972.

  • Young voters accounted for 60% of the overall turnout increase.  That for the whole electorate.

  • CIRCLE still estimates that young voters made up 18% of the total electorate.

The big story still remains Obama's staggering 66 - 32% margin among youth, and I want to explore that a little more in pictures.  Here's a look an historical look at the youth vote margin, long-term and short-term:

youth 2000 - 08




We've made huge gains among youth in recent years, but it's amazing seeing the 24 year swing of young voters away from the Republicans after Reagan's all-time high in 1984.

CIRCLE had one final observation about the 2008 youth vote - as in 2004, turnout was higher in states that were highly targeted by the campaigns (and I would add independent organizations):

CIRCLE estimated comparative turnout in states that were heavily campaigned by both candidates (CO, FL, IA, IN, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA and WI), and all other states for youth and all ages combined.  According to CIRCLE's estimation using aggregated counts of votes from each of these states, youth turnout in the heavily campaigned states was especially strong at 59%, compared with 47% for all other states combined.  Using the same method, overall turnout in these heavily campaigned states was also high at 69%, compared with 56% for all other states combined.  Based on these statistics, it can be inferred that young voters responded to various campaigning efforts in these states by casting their ballots at much higher rates than young people in other states.

The numbers will continue to move a little as all the votes come in, but the big question mark that remains about youth impact on the election is down ballot.  Did Obama have coattails, and did his 66 - 32% margin translate into votes for other candidates?  Or was there significant drop off?  That's going to take some time to figure out, but it's an important question - with implications for how campaigns, the party and independent youth orgs conduct their work.  I'll post when we know more.

Update:Caught a mistake. Illinois should also be blue in the 2004 map. I will swap out a corrected map as soon as I can. Fixed.

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The 2008 Youth Vote: What To Expect When Expecting

In 2004, youth turnout was wildly misreported - in the media and in the blogosphere.  That reporting was summed up most aptly by this famous quip from the late Hunter S. Thompson:

"Yeah, we rocked the vote all right," quips Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo journalist himself. "Those little bastards betrayed us again."

Of course Thompson, and the media reports, were wrong.  The youth vote did turnout and was the only age demographic to vote for Kerry over Bush.  

This year, expectations for the youth vote are higher than ever - perhaps unrealistically so - and the expectations game is already beginning to result in "youth don't vote" stories in local and regional media.  For instance, in Florida, the Orlando Sentinel had this to say:

Young people are turning out in disproportionately low numbers. Though major registration efforts this year boosted their totals to nearly 25 percent of the total electorate, voters younger than 35 represent only 15 percent of early voters, making them the worst-performing demographic group in the analysis.

This is incredibly misleading.  Here's what the Young Democrats of Florida found when they ran the numbers on early voting in Florida:

According to the Florida voter file, (which should be viewed as relatively but not 100% accurate) in 2004, approximately 392,888 voters between 18-35 voted early or absentee. So far 499,867 voters between 18-35 have voted early or absentee this year. This is a 27 percent increase over 2004.

What happened was a common mistake in which the media used misleading, and not terribly informative, "share of the electorate" data to describe youth turnout instead of more accurate figures like the hard number of votes or % turnout of eligible voters.  Unfortunately, such mistakes are all too common in reporting on youth turnout.

The following is a hard nosed look at what we might realistically expect on Tuesday, a list of common mistakes the media makes when reporting on youth, and some tips to help activists, journalists, and bloggers alike accurately assess youth participation on Election Night.

What to Expect When Expecting on Election Day:

Youth Turnout Will Likely Be Higher Than in 2004:

There are three measures of youth participation:

  • Total Number of Votes: That's pretty self explanatory.

  • The Turnout Rate: This is the percentage of all eligible young voters who cast a ballot.

  • The Share of the Electorate: The percentage of the entire voting electorate between the ages of 18 and 29.

This year, the hard number of ballots cast by young voters and the turnout rate are both highly likely increase.  Let's keep that in perspective, though. Youth turnout is not likely to climb into the 60 or 70% range.  The highest youth turnout ever was 55%, recorded in 1972.  I would be extremely happy to see us match that number this year.   Who knows, maybe we'll be surprised and it will be higher, but we shouldn't go into Tuesday expecting that it will be higher.

Even if youth turnout rises significantly, there is no guarantee that the youth share of the electorate will show a comparable increase.

This was the big problem in 2004: youth turnout rose significantly, but, because older portions of the electorate also increased their turnout rate, the youth share of the electorate held steady at 17%.  It is highly possible that increased turnout among African Americans and other groups, or even decreased participation among depressed (young) McCain supporters, could prevent young voters from increasing their share of the electorate on Tuesday.

Again, this isn't to say that youth won't increase their share of the electorate, but don't be surprised if it holds steady at 17%.  More importantly, don't use that "share of the electorate" figure as an accurate measure of youth participation.  More on that below.

Don't Compare Apples to Oranges:

There are two measures of youth turnout from 2004 - those taken from national exit polling, and a more accurate measure taken from the Current Population Survey.  While the CPS data is more accurate (and it is what you will find on most fact sheets from CIRCLE), it also does not come out until months after the election and uses a different methodology than exit polling.  To ensure that we are not comparing apples to oranges on Election Night, it is best that, when measuring youth turnout, we compare the 2008 exit polls to the 2004 exit polls.  Here are the exit poll numbers from 2004.  Use these as your baseline when reporting on Tuesday's youth turnout:

18 - 29 year olds:

  • Vote Count = 19.4 million
  • Turnout = 48%
  • Share = 17%

Common Mistakes (and Basic Facts) About the Youth Vote:

Some of these might be repetitive from above, but they bare repeating.  Use these as a guide when reporting on young voter turnout on Tuesday night:

  1. When reporting on youth participation, do not confuse "share of the electorate" with "turnout." Share of the electorate is a measure of the proportion of young voters who cast a ballot in relation to all other voters.  Turnout is the percentage of all eligible young voters who cast a ballot.  Share measures the influence of young voters within the electorate as a whole.  Turnout tells us whether or not more young people showed up at the polls.  Please do not confuse them.
  2. It is possible for turnout to rise, while share of the electorate remains steady. Indeed, this is exactly what happened in 2004.  Young voter turnout (18 - 29) increased by 9 percentage points from 40 to 49% (an increase of about 4.3 million votes).  However, young voter's share of the electorate remained steady at 17%.
  3. Young voters can only be held accountable for their own actions, not those of the entire electorate. If the youth vote's share of the electorate holds steady from 2004 to 2008, that will mean that older voters also went to the polls in higher numbers.  Young voters cannot be held accountable for that.  As such, turnout and the hard number of votes are the only accurate measure to gauge the success of efforts to get out young voters.
  4. Rising youth turnout is a trend, not a fad tied to the popularity of Senator Obama. Contrary to conventional wisdom, or media reports from 2004, Obama's campaign is not solely responsible for higher youth turnout, though it has played a crucial role during this election cycle.  Youth turnout began to rise in 2004, when youth it jumped by 9 percentage points, from 40 to 49%, and 4.3 million more young voters cast a ballot than in 2000.  This trend continued in 2006, which saw the first increase in young voter turnout during a midterm election since the 1980s.  It reached a new height in early 2008 when youth turnout in the primaries was double that from 2000, the last comparable year.  In some states, youth turnout in the primaries was triple or quadruple that of previous years.
  5. The margin of victory among young voters may be just as important as the overall increase in youth turnout. In 2004, 20 million young voters cast a ballot, with 54% selecting John Kerry. That gave Kerry an advantage of 1.6 million votes over President Bush among young voters. This year, if 22 million young voters cast ballots and 62% choosing Obama vs. 38% for McCain (numbers roughly found in most polling), that would give Senator Obama an advantage of 5.28 million votes.
  6. Youth turnout is about access, not apathy. When young people are registered to vote - they turn out.  According to the US Census, 81.6% of all registered young voters actually cast a ballot in 2004.  That is on par with other portions of electorate.  The more campaigns and independent organizations work to register young voters, and the easier we make the registration process, the higher youth turnout will be.
  7. Regardless of youth turnout on Tuesday, young voters have already played a crucial and decisive role in this contest. In the Iowa Democratic caucuses, young voter turnout tripled and their share of caucus-goers was equal to that of the "reliable" 65+ demographic.  Obama won the support of 60% of Iowa's youth, catapulting him to the front of the Democratic pack.  Similar levels of support from youth in the following primaries and caucuses were the foundation of Obama's primary success.

In all likelihood, we are standing on the brink of an historic election, and we may well witness youth turnout unlike any we've seen in decades.  Let's make sure that, whatever the final numbers, we have an accurate reporting of that turnout and don't make the same mistakes that so many reporters and bloggers made after our disappointing loss in 2004.

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Gallup's Youth Coverage, McCain's "Outreach," and the Margin of Error

Once again, Gallup is trumpeting data claiming that youth interest in the election is the same as it was on 2004.  The headline on their latest piece is "Little Evidence of Youth Surge." I've already seen this picked up on half a dozen blogs, including on Digby.

Here's what everyone should know about this Gallup poll:

  • The margin of error for the youth sample is huge: +/- 7%.

So while Gallup's poll may show that young people are no more engaged than they were in 2004, and are still less likely to vote than older demographics . . .


. . . the margin of error is quite large.  In addition, it may be hard to remember now, but there was a LOT of excitement in 2004, and it was excitement we saw on both sides of the aisle during a very close contest.  By contrast, this election has all the signs of a blowout, and McCain's campaign has zero youth outreach and is actually kicking their own young supporters out of their events.  There's a decent possibility that young McCain supporters are acting as a drag on these numbers.  Look at the disproportionate amount of time and resources each campaign is devoting to energizing its young supporters (from Gallup's own data):


Regardless of self-reported measures of interest, the most interesting youth-vote statistic to watch on Tuesday won't be turnout, it will be the margin of victory that Obama enjoys over McCain.  As I wrote yesterday in my post about Tips for Reporting the Youth Vote:

5. The margin of victory among young voters may be just as important as the overall increase in youth turnout. In 2004, 20 million young voters cast a ballot, with 54% selecting John Kerry. That gave Kerry an advantage of 1.6 million votes over President Bush among young voters. This year, if 22 million young voters cast ballots and 62% choosing Obama vs. 38% for McCain (numbers roughly found in most polling), that would give Senator Obama an advantage of 5.28 million votes.

One more thing about the Gallup poll - they are consistently underestimating youth share of the electorate, even in their "expanded likely voter model." 

As a result, 18- to 29-year-olds now constitute 12% of Gallup's traditional likely voter sample, basically the same as the estimate in the final 2004 pre-election poll (13%). Gallup's expanded likely voter model, which defines likely voters differently (on the basis of current voting intentions only), estimates a slightly higher proportion of young voters in the electorate (14%). However, even if the share of the youth vote were adjusted upward, doing so has little or no impact on the overall Obama-McCain horse-race numbers using either likely voter model.

I'm loathe to look into a crystal ball and predict youth turnout, but young voters made up 16 - 17% of the electorate in 2004 (depending in the source of the data, Current Population Survey and Exit Polling, respectively).  Gallup is setting the youth share in their models at 12 - 14%, at least two points lower.

For anyone taking the Gallup poll - or any other poll prematurely calling the youth vote - seriously, I recommend reading and spreading my Tips for Reporting on the Youth Vote.  It's a good way to avoid the hysteria and common mistakes that frequently surround youth vote reporting.

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20/20, John Stossel To Run Hatchet Piece on Young Voter Engagement

On Friday at 10pm, 20/20 will run a piece on the youth vote called "Maybe It's Your Civic Duty Not To Vote," in which they suggest that uninformed voters - primarily young people - not turn out to the polls.  In talking to the youth group,HeadCount, featured in the piece, it is clear that 20/20 and Stossel were less interested in discovering the truth about young voters while filming their piece than in crafting a hatchet job meant to cast doubt on the growing youth vote.

You can view the 4 minute segment here.

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College Republicans: A $4.7M Direct Mail Scam

Cross posted from Future Majority - a blog about progressive youth politics.

I thought I'd weigh-in on a public battle between B. Lee Drake of the College Democrats and the College Republican National Committee.  Last week, Drake posted an op-ed accusing the CRNC of being nothing more than an ineffectual slush fund for the Republican Party:

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Scott Kleeb Live Blogging - NOW - at Future majority

Nebraska Senate candidate and Netroots favorite Scott Kleeb is live blogging NOW at Future Majority.  

I hope you'll join us.  I've posted Scott's initial comments below the fold.

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Father/Son Live Blog - Mike and Jim Slattery, Kansas

Right now at Future Majority we're having a very special father/son live blog.  Jim Slattery, running for the US Senate in Kansas, and his 26 year old son Mike, running for the Kansas legislature, are live blogging at Future Majority.

The Slattery's initial comments are posted in the extended entry.  They'll be with us until 11am Eastern at Future Majority.

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