Tag Archives: Michael McDonald

Only you can stamp out gerrymandering (UPDATED 7/30/13)

Gerrymandered 4th District

Frustrated by a closed process that results in gerrymandered districts, Michael McDonald (George Mason Univ. turnout expert) and Micah Altman (Harvard) together with thinkers like Norm Ornstein have initiated the quite interesting Public Mapping Project to enable citizens’  input on district boundaries for political seats.

Background:  The WSJ on 7/30/13 reported on the consequences of having legislators draw their own district boundaries (akin to the fox guarding the chicken coop): “Of 435 districts in the Republican-controlled House, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates only 90 as competitive, meaning those seats have a partisan rating that falls within five points of the national average. The rating measures how each district votes relative to how the country as a whole voted in the most recent presidential election. The number of competitive districts [is] at its lowest since Cook first started the partisanship rating in the 1998 election cycle.”

But many states (VA, MI, OH, NY, AZ) and Philadelphia have used this new software developed by Michael McDonald and others to offer redistricting competitions where citizens compete to design the best districts.  The software helps evaluate these maps along various criteria and prizes are awarded for the best maps.  These public maps can become a reference against which the traditionally closed deliberations for redistricting are judged and to refute notions that there were not other better alternatives.  This software can also be used by advocacy groups to weigh in against the redistricting commissions.  In some cases students have designed much better maps than “experts” and is a vivid example of crowdsourcing, how incorporating the wisdom of the general population rather than relying on a small number of experts can lead to much smarter outcomes.

Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute thinks that this open-sourcing redistricting is more like a wonk-fest, since in general one has to be somewhat specialized and an avid political junkie to participate effectively.

Of course what makes a good map is itself contentious:  Democrats may care more about helping to craft districts that help minorities get their own candidates elected than Republicans do.  But clearly both parties are interested in trying to maximize the number of districts that are “safe” for their party or “lean” towards their party.  To the extent that redistricting commissions reflect the party in power, or to the extent that the current legislative must approve it,  even with better crowdsourced maps, it will not take the politics out of the process.  And the irony of partisan-leaning districts is that they protect against smaller public opinion movements away from their party,  but by creating fewer completely “safe” districts, it can put many more seats potentially at risk in there is a large storm surge against that party.

See a Brookings Institution discussion on the Congressional Redistricting effort on July 18, 2011 (Michael McDonald appears from about 21:00-31:00 in the talk).

Test out the software here and see other people’s maps.

2010 voter turnout up, but not for youth and blacks (UPDATED)

Flickr photo by Dean Terry

Preliminary evidence suggests that voting turnout among all Americans was up in the November 2010 election.  Compared with the last non-presidential election (2006), both voting turnout experts (Curtis Gans and Michael McDonald) agree that turnout among eligible voters rose 1.1-1.2 percentage points (based on preliminary estimates that will obviously change as all ballots are counted and certified). Regardless of whether one likes the outcome in 2010, it is civic good news that more Americans got involved.

Preliminary evidence suggests electoral turnout rose in at least nine states, and significantly in Texas, Florida and Minnesota.  Ohio and Pennsylvania, among other states, seems to have experienced a turnout decline.  [Curtis Gans projects voting turnout at 42 percent of registered voters; Michael McDonald believes that 41.5% of voting-eligible Americans turned out to vote.]  Note: McDonald has now lowered his turnout estimate 1.2 percentage points to 40.3% (VEP Highest Office Turnout, as of 11/8/10).

But the bad news is what voices are being heard or not heard. Voting turnout rates were down among young voters (18-29) and blacks made up a lower percentage of voters in 2010 than in 2008 when Obama’s candidacy excited African-Americans to vote.  For example, blacks made up 12% of voters in 2008 and appeared to make up just 10% of voters in 2010 (based on exit polls).  This drop, if it holds up in more authoritative numbers like the Current Population Survey would  negate this encouraging finding reported in 2008 that the black-white voting gap had disappeared.    [Exit polls suggest that Hispanics maintained their share of the electorate, rising from 7% in 2008 to 8% in 2010, although one would have to compare this rise against their expanding voting-eligible numbers to truly understand whether their political voice was diluted, and if so, how much.]  It wasn’t a simple story of the richest folks’ accounting for more of the votes, since those earning $100,000 or more accounted for 26% of the votes in both 2008 and 2010, but due to the elimination of restrictions on corporate campaign contributions in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United case, the wealthy disproportionately had chances to influence election outcomes even before voters got to their polling places.

[For information on 2008 turnout, click here.]

Impact of early voting

Early voting turnout as % of votes cast; Source: http://elections.gmu.edu/CPS_2008.html

Citizens voting before Election day continues to increase as the above graph shows from Current Population Survey data.  [The CPS didn’t ask about early voting in the early 1980s.]

Early voting is lower in the off-presidential years, but party experts speculate that a third or more of voters could vote early in the 2010 election, as high or higher than the 2008 presidential election.

“This year, the District and 32 states, including Maryland, allow some form of early voting….Increasingly, states are making it easier for people to vote early, allowing “no excuse” mail-in ballots and automatically sending ballots to voters who voted by mail in the past…. In some states that make early voting especially easy – such as Nevada, where voting booths can be found in health clubs, libraries, supermarkets and shopping malls – it could be much higher. In the last election, 60 percent of Nevadans voted early.” (Washington Post, “Democrats hope early voters will give them an edge“, 10/20/10)  [For a graphic of which states allow voting when, see the Early Voting Center.]

For sure this changes election strategy, pushing candidates not to hold as much of their advertising until the final days of the campaign, to reconsider their approach about last minute negative campaigning, and to invest more resources up front in a GOTEV (get out the early vote) operation.  And in some states, voters may be locking in their votes before they even hear candidates debate, undermining some of the deliberation in our electoral process.

The Post’s headline focuses on the hope for Democrats but signs seem more mixed.  For sure Democrats are trying to rebuild the grassroots machine that helped lift Obama to victory in 2008.  In some states, like Iowa, early voting turnout is up both among Democrats and GOP in 2010.

Democrats hope early voting will change the tide in Senate races in Nevada, Colorado and Washington.   But Politico reports that “In [Nevada’s] Reno’s Washoe County and Las Vegas’ Clark County, Republican turnout was disproportionately high over the first three voting days, according to local election officials. The two counties together make up 86 percent of the state’s voter population.”

Republicans also seem to be early voters in North Carolina. For example, the “largest group of early voters in North Carolina is made up of white Republican men, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Democracy North Carolina, a campaign watchdog group.” Even though “[d]uring the 2008 Democratic sweep, black Democratic women led all groups during the 17 days of early voting.”

Michael McDonald, voting guru at GMU, summarizes the state of play as “This is the big test election to see if voter mobilization really has an effect on turnout….And at least according to the very earliest early-voting numbers, people who thought the Democrats were going to roll over and play dead, that’s not what’s happening.”

Stay tuned…

Updated 2008 Voter Turnout, Registration and Youth Turnout Figures

(Ironically Paris Hilton neither voted nor died in 2008)

(Ironically Paris Hilton neither voted nor died in 2008)

Voter Turnout:  Despite earlier reports that 2008 election turnout may have exceeded 1964 rates and rivaled 1960, Curtis Gans (an expert at American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate) now estimates that the percentage of eligible citizens in the 2008 presidential election was virtually unchanged from 2004 (126.5-128.5 million Americans, or 60.7-61.7%).  [Read Gans report on voter turnout here.]  Michael McDonald at GMU continues to believe turnout numbers will be higher, but thinks the rate will fall in the band that Gans predicts.  McDonald projects turnout to be 130.4 million Americans or 61.2%, a 1.1% increase over 2004, and the highest since 1968.  [See McDonald’s blog post here.] Gans and McDonald differ on the numerator (Americans who voted) and denominator (eligible Americans), and the latter difference focuses on the fact that “voter-eligibility” can be tinkered with state by state, depending on how often the state or localities scrub their voting lists to eliminate people who have died, moved, or are no longer eligible to vote.

Registration:  Curtis Gans estimates that 73.5% of Americans are now registered to vote, breaking the previous record of 72.5% of Americans in 1964.  Estimated registration for the 2008 general election increased by a moderate 2.5 percentage points; Gans believes that registration rates back when women were given the vote in 1920 may have been still higher. [Read Gans registration report.]

Youth Turnout:  CIRCLE projects that a record number of young people (19-29) voted in 2008, in terms of numbers (22.8-23.1 million Americans) and the highest percentage of youth turnout since 1972 (52-53%).   (CIRCLE’s figures are based on exit polling, which can then be compared with what youth report on the Current Population Survey, once it becomes available in the Spring).   [As one would expect, youth turnout and turnout of those over 30 years old was heavier in battleground states.]

As we noted in “Why Republicans Are So Worried“, youth favored Obama by an unprecedented more than 2:1 ratio; as CIRCLE observes “The average age-gap in support for the Democratic candidate from 1976 through 2004 was only 1.8 percentage points, as young voters basically supported the same candidate as older voters in most elections.”

And CIRCLE believes that the increased youth turnout of 18-29 year olds represented 60% of the increase in voting from 2004 to 2008.

To see the whole CIRCLE youth turnout post, click here.

See Pew Research Report on “Young voters in the 2008 election“.

Obama’s historic election

barack-obama-hopeThe election of Saguaro’s Barack Obama as 44th, and first African-American president marks itself as a truly historic election.  It makes me immensely proud to be an American.

Some notes on the election:

1) voter turnout:  preliminary turnout projections put the numbers between 134 million (Curtis Gans, American U.) and 136.6 million Americans (Michael McDonald, GMU).  SEE UPDATED NUMBERS HERE. [Some 30 million voted early and some 105 million were believed to have voted on election day.] This would translate into a voter turnout rate of somewhere around 64%, possibly exceeding the all time rate in 1960, or just below this rate.  [Curtis Gans notes on a Metro Connection interview that turnout was very high among Democrats, but actually lower in 2008 among Republicans; Gans notes that some states actually had lower turnout.  Gans notes that one shouldn’t compare votes cast to number of registered voters since once can manipulate turnout rates depending on how recently they cleaned the voter lists for people who moved or died.]  (You can see from below chart that after declining until 1996, it has shot up in the last 12 years).  [David King, of the Kennedy School believes that voter turnout, without counting the absentee ballots was 64.9%, matching the 1960 rates and could rise higher.)  One can see this as half-full or half-empty;  it is disconcerting that even in an election with such important consequences for the future of the nation, and with such compelling personalities (Obama and Palin), and with unprecedented sums spent on advertising and GOTV (get out the vote) efforts, still over a 1/3 of all eligible Americans did not vote.  But nonetheless, it is a remarkable turnaround in the last 12 years.  Curtis Gans thinks that the trends of civic disengagement from voting are generally occurring and although he hopes Obama brings in a new era of civic engagement, he thinks we shouldn’t infer too much from a couple of close elections in 2000-2008.

presidential-turnout-rates

(Source: Michael McDonald, GMU)

2) youth vote:  Part of the story in the resurgence is youth voting.  We witnessed  huge increases in primary voting among younger voters 18-29 year olds (in many cases doubling or tripling number of youth votes 4-8 years ago in the primaries).  We have written  about what might be the beginning of a 9-11 Generation among youth, preliminary reports from CIRCLE were that youth 18-29 did not make up an increased percentage of voters in the 2008 general election [since all age groups were increasing their voter turnout, the youth’s share stayed constant at about 17%).  SEE UPDATED NUMBERS HERE. But it appears that the youth are continuing to turn out at increasing rates (from 37% in 1996 to 41% in 2000 to 48% in 2004 to 49-54% in 2008). [CIRCLE is still projecting the youth turnout from the 2008 election; we’ll fill this in when they come in with a definite number, but it could be the second highest youth turnout ever since 1972 when it was 54.5%.]  David King at the Kennedy School says the data indicates it was the highest turnout for 18 year-olds since 1972. Whether the glass is half full or half empty is a matter of interpretation;  voting rates for youth are still significantly below voting rates for seniors, for example.  And young people voted overwhelmingly for Obama.  [See the NYT’s story “Youth Turnout up by 2 Million from 2004“]

3) mobilizing new people into the political process:  2008 was an unprecedented year in terms of the numbers of volunteers and donors to the Obama campaign, and an exquisite combination of “high-tech” and “high-touch” in his campaign (with tens of thousands of door-to-door canvassers coupled with a highly sophisticated use of e-mail, texting, use of cellphone, and websites).  [We’ve written about that earlier here and here. ] But with the massive increases in the number of registered Americans, preliminary reports were that first-time voters were not noticeably higher than they were in 2004 as a percentage of the voters (even though their absolute numbers increased, since the total number of voters increased).  In the process of his campaign, he spurred 50,000 local events, 1.5 million volunteers on the web, 8,000 web-based affinity groups, and 3.1 million donors who contributed almost $700 million to his campaign. It didn’t hut that Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes helped worked for the Obama campaign. [My colleague David Lazer talks about in “Obama’s Machine” [Forbes], how Obama might unleash this network in the future to his advantage.]

4) What will new Obama administration look like?  What will be their priorities?

In some regards, it is too soon to tell.  But there have been some inklings of important strands announced by Barack on the stump, above and beyond his obvious focus on energy independence, ending the war in Iraq and trying to make the economy work again.

Focus on sacrifice: Alexandra Marks article in Christian Science Monitor discussed this theme which Obama also returned to in his speech last night from Chicago.

Obama in his victory speech: “So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers — in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.”

Role of the citizen:  Mentioning Obama’s focus, Michael Sandel noted “…[A] new politics of the common good can’t be only about government and markets. “It must also be about a new patriotism — about what it means to be a citizen.”  (From Thomas Friedman’s column, “Finishing Our Work”, NYT, 11/5/08)

From Obama’s victory speech: “[The campaign victory] was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth….[A]bove all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years — block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand….This victory alone is not the change we seek — it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.”

– Focus on service:  from Barack’s mention of a bold plan for AmeriCorps expansion as a campaign promise, to his appearing in the ServiceSummit with John McCain and Richard Stengel of TIME, to his invocation of service in his victory speech.  [As Michael Sandel noted, “This is the deepest chord Obama’s campaign evoked. The biggest applause line in his stump speech was the one that said every American will have a chance to go to college provided he or she performs a period of national service — in the military, in the Peace Corps or in the community. Obama’s campaign tapped a dormant civic idealism, a hunger among Americans to serve a cause greater than themselves, a yearning to be citizens again.” (Friedman’s column, “Finishing Our Work”, 11/5/08)]

– Slate magazine’s John Dickerson also had an interesting post on  6 ways that Obama could show he is a new type of leader

And E.J. Dionne (who was a fellow member of Saguaro with Barack) wrote an op-ed today “A New Era for America” talking about how he expects that in the same way as Barack completely recast the campaign process, he will recast politics.

Yes, it is time to hope again….Time to hope that the era of racial backlash and wedge politics is over. Time to imagine that the patriotism of dissenters will no longer be questioned and that the world will no longer be divided between “values voters” and those with no moral compass. Time to expect that an ideological label will no longer be enough to disqualify a politician….Above all, it is time to celebrate the country’s wholehearted embrace of democracy, reflected in the intense engagement of Americans in this campaign and the outpouring to the polls all over the nation…. Obama inherits challenges that could overwhelm any leader and faces constraints that will tax even his exceptional political skills. But the crisis affords him an opportunity granted few presidents to reshape the country’s assumptions, change the terms of debate and transform our politics. The way he campaigned and the way he won suggest that he intends to do just that.