Despite the expansion of convenience voting across the American states, millions of voters continue to cast ballots at their local precincts on Election Day. We argue that those registered voters who are reassigned to a different Election Day polling place prior to an election are less likely to turn out to vote than those assigned to vote at the same precinct location, as a new precinct location incurs both search and transportation costs on reassigned voters. Utilizing voter file data and precinct shape files from Manatee County, Florida, from before and after the 2014 General Election, we demonstrate that the redrawing of precinct boundaries and the designation of Election Day polling places is not a purely technical matter for local election administrators, but may affect voter turnout of some registered voters more than others. Controlling for a host of demographic, partisan, vote history, and geospatial factors, we find significantly lower turnout among registered voters who were reassigned to a new Election Day precinct compared to those who were not, an effect not equally offset by those voters turning to other available modes of voting (either early in-person or absentee). All else equal, we find that registered Hispanic voters were significantly more likely to abstain from voting as a result of being reassigned than any other racial group.
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In 2013, the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections consolidated precincts after the 2012 General Election and before the 2014 midterm election for a low-turnout special referendum election, which temporarily reduced the number of precincts to 99. Unlike the redrawing done in 2014, this was, with just one exception, a purely merging-type reprecincting akin to Brady and McNulty’s (2011) case, rather than a situation where precincts were permanently split.
The patterns described hold when joined in a logit model, with retaining the same polling location as the dependent variable (results not shown). Distance, precinct population, and race are the most substantial variables in the model.
The expansion of opportunities to vote has recently hit some speed bumps. Some state legislatures and elections officials have rolled back existing reforms aimed at expanding the electorate (Scher 2011; Wang 2012; Herron and Smith 2014; Herron et al. 2016), or have even erected new barriers—such as strict photo ID laws—due to concerns over the risk of electoral fraud (Hicks et al. 2015). Notwithstanding the recent reversals on convenience voting, some scholars have argued that the very institutional expansion of convenience voting—to say nothing of the recent reversals—may actually lead to lower turnout. Early voting “has created negative unanticipated consequences by reducing the civic significance of elections for individuals” Burden et al. (2014: p. 95) suggest, “altering the incentives for political campaigns to invest in mobilization.” Beyond the aggregate effects of diminishing turnout, others have suggested that such expansionary reforms may even have a “compositional effect,” exacerbating “socioeconomic biases of the electorate” (Berinsky 2005).
For example: how many days of in-person early voting does a state offer, and how many days prior to Election Day does it commence and end? Is early in-person voting offered on weekends, or after normal business hours? What proof does a voter need to provide to receive a no-excuse absentee? How easy is it for a voter to be placed on a “permanent” absentee voter list and is return postage included? May absentee ballots be picked up by voters in person before an election, or dropped off before Election Day, or received or postmarked by Election Day? What constitutes an acceptable photo voter ID? Are reforms enforced uniformly across all local jurisdictions? When operationalizing these election reforms, scholars often rely on dichotomous indicators (see, for example, Burden et al. 2014), which may over-simplify the true variation in contexts.
Arguing that the consolidation of precincts in Los Angeles County was conducted in a nonpartisan fashion, Brady and McNulty (2011: p. 116) report there was “no indication that the Los Angeles County Registrar of Elections manipulated polling locations so as to change more polling locations for those registered with one rather than the other major party.” Rather, they emphasize that the consolidation of precincts and moving of polling stations in anticipation of the 2003 special election—which reduced the number of polling stations from 5231 to 1885—was carried out to reduce costs. Yet, in an early draft of their article, Brady and McNulty (2004: pp. 2–3) noted that across California prior to the Recall election, “Not every county consolidated precincts. In fact, most did not. Despite the cost factor, county administrators were loath to risk the possibility of a decline in voter turnout—and an increase in voter complaints—bound to occur given changes in long established polling places and a decrease in the density of the polling places offered.”
Some local elections officials are required, statutorily, to split or consolidate precincts, altering their geographic boundaries, as well as find alternative polling stations. In Virginia, for example, state law limits the number of registered voters in each precinct, forcing local elections officers to alter district boundaries with some frequency.
The January 2013 statewide voter provided by the Florida Division of Elections was corrupted, and was not cleaned until March, 2013. See Herron and Smith (2014). We excluded those who registered to vote after the state’s 29-day registration cutoff, as they were ineligible to vote in the 2012 election. Furthermore, Florida allows for 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote; those who had not yet turned 18 by the 2012 election were also excluded.
On this point, our research design differs from Haspel and Knotts (2005: 536), who report using a single voter file obtained by the Georgia Secretary to determine a voter’s residence, Election Day polling location, and turnout in the 2001 Atlanta election. Because they use a single snapshot from the voter file, they are unable to control for whether a voter in the 2001 mayoral election previously had resided at the same residence. In addition, they make no mention of whether voters who cast ballots in the mayoral election cast absentee ballots (as was permitted at the time in Georgia), rather than voting in person at their local precinct.
According to the 2015 voter file, 239 voters were coded as casting absentee ballots that were rejected; these were merged into the absentee voting category despite them not actually being counted. There were 33 voters who cast provisional ballots, 25 of which were accepted and were coded as to whether they were cast early or on Election Day (2 and 23, respectively), and were similarly merged into their respective categories. Since the remaining 8 rejected provisional ballots were not separated by the Florida “Vote History” file into early or Election Day voters, we merged them into the Election Day category, as this was the most likely scenario.
Because they use a single Georgia voter file to geocode the addresses of registered voters, Haspel and Knotts (2005: p. 563) necessarily include the vote histories of previously registered voters who moved to Atlanta as well as registered voters who may have moved within Atlanta.
At least, when only relying on the free service—paid options for heavy use are available.
Google Maps Geocoding API coordinates are in the WGS 84 system, which we convert to NAD 83 to match those geocoded using Census data; distance calculations were made using the NAD 83/UTM 17 N projection, which is standard for the Florida peninsula.
Also not surprising, overall turnout among those registered voters who maintained the same address in 2012 and 2014 was lower in the 2014 midterm election (53.9 %) compared to the 2012 presidential election (72.9 %). Overall turnout in 2014 among those voters who were not reassigned to a new polling station was 56.1 percent; overall turnout in 2014 among those who were reassigned a new polling station was 50.8 percent. Again, we are interested in the relative turnout rates among these two subpopulations—those keeping their polling station and those who were reassigned.
Data and replication code are publicly available at Political Behavior Dataverse, “Replication Data & Online Appendix for: Reprecincting and Voting Behavior,” http://dx.doi.org/10.7910/DVN/XFHBPO.
As a check on our method, we also ran a multinomial logit model weighted using Coarsened Exact Matching (Iacus et al. 2008; Stata implementation by Blackwell et al. 2009). Matching using CEM on variables significant across all three vote methods (2012 vote method, race, party, age, supervoter, recurring absentee ballot status, and distance to polls), as shown in the Online Appendix, Table A1, produces results substantively similar to our non-matching model: the gap in likelihood to vote on Election Day between those who were and were not assigned a new polling location was 4.5 %, and the overall effect on turnout was 2.6 %. Both are significant differences at p < 0.001.
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Amos, B., Smith, D.A. & Ste. Claire, C. Reprecincting and Voting Behavior. Polit Behav 39, 133–156 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-016-9350-z
- Voter turnout
- Election Administration