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Rethinking the partisan effects of higher turnout: So what's the question?

Abstract

Controversy persists over the link between turnout and the likelihood of success of Democratic candidates (e.g., DeNardo, 1980, 1986; Zimmer, 1985; Tucker and Vedlitz, 1986; Piven and Cloward, 1988; Texeira, 1992; Radcliff, 1994, 1995; Erikson, 1995a, b). We argue that the authors in this debate have largely been talking past one another because of a failure to distinguish three quite different questions. The first question is: “Are low turnout voters more likely to vote Democratic than high turnout voters?” The second question is: “Should we expect that elections in which turnout is higher are ones in which we can expect Democrats to have done better?” The third question is the counterfactual: “If turnout were to have increased in some given election, would Democrats have done better?” We show the logical independence of the first two questions from one another and from the third, and argue that previous researchers have failed to recognize this logical independence – sometimes thinking they were answering question three when in fact they were answering either question one or question two. Reviewing previous research, we find that the answer to the first question once was YES but, for more recent elections at the presidential level, now appears to be NO, while, for congressional and legislative elections, the answer to the second question appears generally to be NO. However, the third question is essentially unanswerable absent an explicit model of why and how turnout can be expected to increase, and/or analyses of individual level panel data. Thus, the cross-sectional and pooled data analyses of previous research are of almost no value in addressing this third question.

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Grofman, B., Owen, G. & Collet, C. Rethinking the partisan effects of higher turnout: So what's the question?. Public Choice 99, 357–376 (1999). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1018397327176

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Keywords

  • Panel Data
  • Public Finance
  • Pool Data
  • Previous Researcher
  • Explicit Model