Every Election Day that I can remember, the political and chattering classes have spent hours gossiping and speculating about voter turnout. Particularly in non-presidential years, when the impact of base votes for the Democratic and Republican parties (as opposed to that of swing voters) is magnified, the political “experts” come up with all sorts of explanations for why turnout is “low” or “high” and what implications this has for electoral outcomes.
It’s nonsense. We ought to start tuning it out. It’s a distraction, it’s an exaggeration of the “problem,” and there is scant scientific basis for saying that one or the other party benefits when turnout ticks up or down.
Look at Tuesday’s elections. Going into the cycle, the commentators repeated the old saw about how negative ads and bitter campaigns turn off voters, depressing the turnout. Then on Election Day, I was deluged with calls and emails, some from outside NC, asking me what I thought about reports of long lines at polling places and about the potential impact of rain on Democratic or Republican prospects.
I mostly brushed it off. Anybody who tells you they have firm answers to these questions is just faking it.
Was turnout good on Tuesday? The spin during the media coverage was that it was much “better” than usual (I’m also not convinced that democracy would be improved with massively higher turnout, as it would mostly involve the addition of voters who are not confident of their choices and often ignorant of the candidates, positions, and issues.)
This spin was probably incorrect. According to the State Board of Elections, statewide turnout was around 46 percent of registered voters. While this represents a small gain from the 1994 and 1998 midterms, when turnout was around 42 percent, it is still below the average of 48 percent for midterm elections since 1966. And that is factoring some atypically high turnouts that North Carolina experienced in 1986 and 1990.
The highest midterm turnout was 1990 – the year of the first Jesse Helms vs. Harvey Gantt race. Oh, and one of the highest turnouts in a presidential year was in 1984, when Helms ran against Jim Hunt. These are precisely the two Senate campaigns that the chin-tuggers complain most about for being vitriolic and for featuring ceaseless, negative advertising.
Finally, let me point out that there is little correlation between turnout and party advantage. Republicans did well in 1966 and 1994 with relatively low turnouts. Democrats did well in 1974 and 1998 with roughly the same low turnouts. Republicans made sizable gains in 1990, Democrats in 1986 – the two highest turnouts.
To assert is not to prove.