Thursday, July 27, 2006

Turnout: how bad is it in the US?

Well, compared to other countries, voter turnout in the United States is awful. Previous posts have emphasized that recent voter turnout in the US is not doomed to stay in the dumps compared to our own high turnout days of the 1950s and 1960s. That is the good news. But there is bad news and that is that US turnout sucks a root compared to other countries. Below is a table adapted from the Wikipedia article on turnout. As can be seen, the US is at the bottom of the list with Switzerland and India, and both of those countries also lag far behind the other nations.

Table.--International comparison of average voter turnout.

Note: *country has compulsory voting law, **turnout as % of VAP, ***turnout as % of VEP where VAP is Voting Age Population, and VEP is Voting Eligible Population. N is number of elections used to estimate average turnout. US elections are for presidential years, others for lower house elections.

Table adapted from article Voter Turnout,

The tables and graphs in the Wikipedia Voter Turnout article is a little sloppy because the turnout figures are not always for the voting eligible population, particularly for the US. I recalculated the US figure using the VEP, and it doesn't make much difference, the US still trails the pack, except for Switzerland.

Some of the statistics for other countries do not restrict to the eligible voting population either, but it makes little difference. Look how little difference the rise in ineligible population makes in the US -a rise from essentially zero to ten percent. For the US to catch up to the third lowest country, Japan, the eligible population of Japan would have to be overestimated by 20%.

So, it looks like the US has really lousy voter turnout compared to other countries. The list in the Wikipedia article has many more countries, all of which are also ahead of the US. But many of these countries, such as Russia, Estonia and Romania, have only had two or three elections that could be used, so they were omitted.

There is really nowhere to turn. Statistics on voter turnout as a proportion of registered voters get about the same result -everyone is higher than the US.

Bottom line is that US voter turnout for elections is a disgrace.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Turnout: the registered youth of this great nation are temperamental, not lazy

The issue of youth voting got me curious. Everything I've read is so depressing... 'youth voting down,' 'where are them dang kids?', 'waste of time looking for American Youth,' etc. No wonder they don't want to vote, everyone crabbing at them about it -youth are temperamental.

The previous post in this series took a look at research that indicated youth were just as responsive to GOTV efforts as adults, IF these youth could be contacted at the same rate as adults. The problem is that these dang youth are elusive and move around a lot. So, let us look at the turnout of youth using a measure that, in a crude way, might isolate youth who have been contacted at high rates recently: turnout as a percentage of registered voters.

We will look at the following groups youth (18-24 years), young adults (25-44 years), and adults (45-64 years), using Census Bureau data from the Current Population Survey (CPS), namely:

Table A-1. Reported Voting and Registration by Race, Hispanic Origin, Sex and Age Groups: November 1964 to 2004

We won't look at elderly voters in this post. The terminology used here may be idiosyncratic. I don't know if 44 year old people consider themselves to be young adults. But I've heard 60 is the new 40, so it might be OK.

The CPS data have some problems. It is survey data, rather than a compilation of actual voting and registration records. So, people tend to say they are registered or have voted when they did not and the turnout rates tend to be higher using CPS data instead of FEC data. But the FEC does not keep track of much demographic data, and CPS data have been validated for looking at patterns over time and between groups at the same time.

Graph 1.--Turnout as a proportion of registered voters: youth, young adults and adults, 1972-2004.

Graph 1 above shows turnout as proportion of registered voters in each age group. The turnout of registered youth for recent presidential elections seems to be not so much low as very volatile. It took one presidential election cycle to go from the highest it's been in twelve years to the lowest since 1972. Then it took four years to go from the second worst turnout ever to almost the level of 1992. There does seem to be a long term decline in turnout for off-year congressional elections, though. These are the same patters we saw for the 18-20 year old turnout as a function of Voting Eligible Population in the previous turnout post. What is interesting here is that the young adults, who one would like to think are more mature and regular about things, show the same pattern as youth. In fact, relative to past performance, the drop in young adult turnout after 1992 is even more pronounced. The variation in percent turnout is less than for youth, but youth adults are a larger group, so it may be even more significant in terms of votes. The adults are the most stable of all. Let's use the adult turnout as the reference gold standard, and see if there are any patterns in the ratio of youth and young adult to adult turnout.

Graph 2.--Ratio of youth and young adult turnout to adult, registered voters, 1972-2004.

Graph 2 shows the ratios. I think there is a pattern that confirms the impressions from Graph 1. If we use the adult turnout as a gold standard, then for presidential elections, we see a long slow decline after 1972, followed by a volatile period starting in 1992. The good news is that youth turnout can be large, and, as a percentage of adult turnout, come close to 5 percentage points of turnout in 1972. What I think is interesting is that young adult turnout follows almost the same pattern. So, for presidential elections, if the registered adults are interested enough to turn in large numbers, so are the youth and young adults.

Also, the congressional elections turnouts of both groups don't look so gloomy. There may be a slight recovery in turnout of registered voters in 2002, however that is only one off-year election, and may be due as much to a decrease in adult turnout following 1992 as increased youth and young adult enthusiasm.

So, at least for the registered population the recent history suggests that youth are volatile more than apathetic or dilatory. At least that is how I see it. So, for elections, the bottom line is that registered youth may turnout in surprising large numbers, at least if the election is compelling enough to attract a large proportion of adults. So the question is, who will they vote for? Interesting also that young adults look like a more stable version of the youth.

previous post in this series

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Ancient Athenian Democracy: It wasn’t the democracy it was the Athenians

Been reading about Ancient Athenian democracy. I decided it has gotten a bad rap. Wasn’t the democracy that was unstable it was the ancient Athenians. They were out of control; too busy doing other things, like establishing trade empires and inventing Western culture.

The run up to official democracy should be a tip-off that the place was out of control, no matter what kind of government they tried. They asked Draco for a law code around 620 BCE, and he listed out a bunch of laws for everything from loitering to murder and prescribed the death penalty for everything. So, anyone should see the place was out of control.

Then Solon came along around 590, and he said he would only work up a constitution if everyone promised to obey it for ten years, at which point he said he would leave the city, before they decided to ignore all his work, and all hell broke loose. So, he knew them better than we do, and obviously he didn’t have much confidence.

Solon prohibited a person from putting up their freedom as a collateral for a loan, he established the right to appeal a court decision to a trial by jury, officials were selected by lot, and he divided Athens up into four groups by wealth, and allowed the chief executive (the Archon) to come from the top three. This worked for a while, but then Athens fell into chaos again.

Then Athens had a time-out for tyranny. A fellow named Pisistratus wanted to become a tyrant real bad. Pisistratus was kind of combination of PT Barnum and Juan Peron (but better macro-economic management skills than Peron). One day Pisistratus pretended to be ambushed by soldiers from a neighboring enemy state and rushed into town to display his wounds. He talked Athens into giving him fifty armed guards, and he used them to take over. People were a bit upset, and he got deposed a short time later. So he rode into Athens with very tall, very beautiful women who he dressed up as Minerva. His old bodyguards and some foreign soldiers ran ahead into Athens screaming that the goddess Minerva had come down to earth; she was upset that Pisistratus had been deposed, and would soon arrive with him in a chariot. And right after them, Pisistratus drove in with this fake Minerva by his side in a chariot. When the confusion died down, Pisistratus was tyrant again (This is from Herodotus, so it must be true.)

Pisistratus was a popular tyrant. He kept most of Solon’s reforms and also instituted circuit courts, so people could go to trial in their own communities. His main innovation was that all officials had to be one of his relatives -that is where the tyrant part came in. Pisistratus reduced taxes on the poor, completed major public works projects, supported the arts, and influenced policy to increase foreign trade. Pisistratus was very popular, and Athens prospered under his rule. Interesting that much of Athens prosperity at the dawn of its famous classical democracy was due to the tyrant Pisistratus.

Unfortunately Pisistratus left the tyranny to his two sons, who were thugs, and things fell apart again. One son was assassinated and the other was exiled, and Athens was a leaderless mess again by 510 BCE. So the stage was set for making the classical Athenian democracy we all know. The end of the story, and Votinglinks little moral from it, will come soon.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Turnout: whither them dang kids?

Seem to have read disparaging things about the youth vote recently. Supposed to be never there at all, and waste of time to pay it any attention, people making fun of Rock the Vote, etc. Interesting paper on the youth vote by David Nickerson, 'Hunting the elusive young voter'. Nickerson says that the trouble is effectively contacting young voters; they are at least twice as likely to move each year compared to older people. But, if you can contact them at same rate as older age groups, they have similar response to GOTV programs in terms of election day turnout. If that is true, situation is not hopeless. Paper can be downloaded from URL below:

D Nickerson. Hunting the elusive young voter. Journal of Political Marketing. forthcoming(?)
pre-publication copy from author's homepage:

Let's take a look at some numbers to see if these youth voters are as unreliable and dilatory as some people say. The graph below compares voter turnout in national elections as percent of Voting Eligible Population (VEP), that is, citizens of voting age not disqualified because in jail, on parole or probation. The numbers were taken from a paper by McDonald and Popkin (reference and link at end of this post). The data only go to the 2000 election, I am working on finding or developing data for later years.

Graph.--Adult and youth voter turnout as percent of Voting Eligbile Population.

The dark circles in the graph show turnout for voters over age twenty (adults). The open circles show turnout for those age eighteen to twenty (youth). The stars connected by the dotted line show the ratio of youth to adult turnout. First thing to note is that, using VEP, adult turnout in presidential elections is not falling dramatically, and the 2000 election brought us almost back to the high turnout days of the 50s and early 60s. Youth turnout started off quite high -it was 80% of adult turnout in1972, the first presidential election in which eighteen year olds could vote. After that it fell off, but for presidential years stayed on a plateau of 60% to 65% of the adult turnout until 1992. Admittedly, youth turnout has steadily declined during midterm Congressional elections. And as shown in the last turnout post, turnout for all groups took a dive in the next three elections, until 2004 when turnout was high again. So everyone shares blame for that. Also note that the youth turnout goes up in presidential elections when adult turnout goes up, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of adult turnout. So if there is an interesting, or close, or notable presidential election, youth will turn out. At least they did until 1992.

Seems to Votinglinks that youth turnout is not some mirage. Youth turnout is lower than that of adults, but during presidential years it held steady until 1992. When an election draws a high turnout among adults, the youth turnout will be higher also, both in absolute and relative terms. If the Nickerson article is correct, then perhaps the scorn exists because youth are frustrating to work with -they are difficult to contact. But once contacted they do seem to respond like their older, and supposedly wiser, fellow citizens. If youth voting has fallen off a cliff, it is something that has happened relatively recently.

Data for graph from Michael P. McDonald and Samuel Popkin. 2001. "The Myth of the Vanishing Voter." American Political Science Review 95(4): 963-974.

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Report on registration and GOTV for college students

The Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement (PACE) at Salisbury University has a detailed report on voting for college age students. Click on the link below to the page where you can download the pdf document. A 2006 version should be posted soon. The previous versions (2004 most recent) are still available for download.

Democracy and College Student Voting

The report has detailed state by state information on state residency requirements and voting registration. Useful for anyone who wants to get college students out to vote, and handy dandy for college students themselves too.

The link to the report will be added to the voting resources homepage soon.

Grassroots Founders, on voting: Thomas Jefferson (concluded)

Did Jefferson ever change his mind? He grew extremely conflicted over slavery towards the end of his life, and the Missouri Compromise rattled him. It was the House, the popular branch of Congress, that approved an amendment that would have, if it had survived, eventually eliminated slavery from Missouri. One of Jefferson’s pet ideas for wiping out slavery was to ‘diffuse’ it throughout the nation (he became very conflicted and confused about the subject). He also became somewhat disillusioned about the common people in the new country. They were not all becoming Unitarians, as he had predicted, among other things. Did he still trust the common mass of citizens? Here Jefferson writes on voting in 1824, two years before his death.

" The basis of our [state] Constitution is in opposition to the principle of equal political rights [if it refuses] to all but freeholders any participation in the natural right of self-government... However nature may by mental or physical disqualifications have marked infants and the weaker sex for the protection rather than the direction of government, yet among the men who either pay or fight for their country, no line of right can be drawn. The exclusion of a majority of our freemen from the right of representation is merely arbitrary, and an usurpation of the minority over the majority. "
Thomas Jefferson to John Hampden Pleasants, 1824

Too bad Jefferson stayed a male chauvinist all his life. But this series is about Grassroots Founders (Progressive Founders is another issue) and we have solved the problem of women’s suffrage, but not that of low voter turnout. So don’t hold the weak women comment against him, at least for now.

Finally, there are Jefferson’s Notes for a Constitution. No one seems to know what these notes were for. I found only one discussion of them, and that consisted of the comment that their purpose was ‘mysterious.’ Jefferson wrote a draft constitution for Virginia in 1776, and he offered suggestions based on them to the committee in charge of writing it. But these seem to be private notes for himself. If anyone knows what the story is on the Notes for Constitution, please contact the blog.

" Every male citizen of the commonwealth liable to taxes or to militia duty in any county, shall have a right to vote for representatives for that county to the legislature "
Jefferson: Notes for a Constitution, 1794

So, this concludes Grassroots Jefferson on voting, and I think for his time, he was pretty grassroots on the topic. Certainly very consistent, for Jefferson, who was sometimes not very. Definitely wanted all citizens to vote, regardless of social class or wealth. He presented several arguments for it: protection against corruption, human rights, and social cohesion and justice. Next up is the Grassroots Alexander Hamilton on voting. Believe it or Not.

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Friday, July 21, 2006

How important were ‘moral values’ issues in the 2004 election? (continued) A look at the exit poll itself

J Langer and G Cohen, in 'Voters and Values in the 2004 Election', use data from the 2004 National Election Poll (NEP) exit poll itself. So they give tour through the data that caused all the fuss in the first place.

After explaining the many reasons why 'moral values' was a lousy choice for a 'top issue' in an exit poll, they show that it was chosen mainly by weekly churchgoing conservative Christians. They present summary data from a series of exit polls that show:
--increase support for Bush from 2000 to 2004 was from conservative white Protestants, and all Catholics, but not among all weekly churchgoing white Protestants,
--about 90% of conservative white Protestants have voted for the Republican presidential candidate since 1980 ( I see a slight upward trend),
--about 55% to 60% of other white Protestants and other Christians have voted for the Republican presidential candidate since 1980 ( I see no upward trend),
--most of increase in support for Bush in 2004 came from infrequent or non-churchgoers, not frequent churchgoers.

They present a statistical analysis of the NEP data to estimate the relationship between voting for Bush and choice of top issue on the exit poll. They included other respondent characteristics, so the effect of choosing one of the top issues could be estimated while holding other characteristics constant. The characteristics were self-identified evangelical Christian, weekly church attendance, Party ID, political ideology (liberal vs. conservative), and race (white vs. other). They did a simulation to estimate the average change in probability of voting for Bush for as a function of choice of top issue in the exit poll sample. The results are shown below.

change in probability of Bush vote
as a function of choice of top issue

--terrorism: 0.172
--economy: -0.113
--Iraq war: -0.099
--moral values: 0.081
--health care: -0.080
--education: -0.066
--taxes: 0.011

Choosing terrorism, economy and the Iraq war as the top issue had more impact than moral values. They also do an analysis that indicates that in the exit poll sample, the term moral values acted like a proxy for opposition to same-sex marriage and belief that abortion should be always or almost always illegal.

Votinglinks Comments: The authors recognize that using this data means they cannot unpack the vague term 'moral issues' in detail but they can take a look at how picking that buzzword itself as the top issue influenced the vote among those who turned out on election day. The main weakness of this paper is that they only report how the issues effect the probability of voting for Bush in the exit poll sample, but provide no info on how well the sample represents all the voters or subgroups.

I have not found any studies that indicate 'moral values', or same-sex marriage or reproductive rights were a dominant issue for all voters or any large political demographic, other than conservative Christians. The question of whether, in the close 2004 presidential election, the marriage and abortion issues may have made a difference in certain states is a different issue, and the next and concluding post in this series will look at two studies that tackle that.

G Langer and J Cohen. Voters and Values in the 2004 Election. Public Opinion Quarterly: 69(5) Special Issue 2005; 744-759.
(URL is for abstract, may need subscription to download paper, depending on from where you access)

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Interesting info on how US political parties market religion

In December 2005 The Program in American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame had a conference on religion in the 2004 election. The website is still up with the program and papers for download.

An interesting paper was presented on the Saturday session that compares how the Republican and Democratic Parties, and associated groups, use religion in their marketing materials. The focus was on the conservative side, but there's a lot of information on liberal groups too. You can download a pdf file of the talk, look for the link titled

'The Instrumental Use of Religion to Mobilize Religious Conservatives in the 2004 Election.'

I think the results are interesting. The RNC is by far the major producer of religious messages in conservative campaign material. Most of it concerns same-sex marriage, and there's also a major effort to brand certain phrases as signifying conservative Christian beliefs, such as 'family values', 'moral values.' There is also what looks like an effort to strongly connect the Boy Scouts with conservative religious values.

What I found most interesting is that there is a near parity between conservative and liberal groups in producing unique religious messages. The conservative groups produce only 20% more distinct individual messages. But the conservative groups send out the same messages almost ten times. RNC mails out by far the most. There is also a description of RNC micro-targeting marketing techniques, including interesting stuff on their data-mining techniques for constructing the groups.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

How important were ‘moral values’ issues in the 2004 election? (continued)

This is the second in a report of research on reasons for the 2004 Bush victory, with emphasis on the effect of ‘moral values.’

G B Lewis analyzes data on individuals from a March 2004 LA Time opinion survey. The poll was not designed to be nationally representative, and does not include peoples’ votes, obviously, but the author references a study that finds that the data from this LA Time survey strongly resemble those of exit polls on election day. The study analyzes individual preference for Bush as a function of the following issue variables, which are expressed as

--Iraq war worth it
--economy doing well
--support of civil unions
--support of same-sex marriage

The study includes the following variables in the analysis, so that the effect of positions on the issue variables can be estimated while holding other characteristics constant: ideology, regular church-going, Born-again Christian conservatism, Party ID, religious affiliation, age, education sex, income, race/ethnicity, self-identified LGBT. Opinion on abortion was not included in the analysis.

The way the author modeled the preference for Bush vs. Kerry as a function of the issues is complex, so the results are presented in terms of a simulation. The results are presented as the net change in probability of voting for Bush, for the ‘average' voter. The results are

--belief that war in Iraq was worth it: +49 percent points
--belief that economy was doing well: +27 points
--support of same-sex marriage: -25 points
--belief in Bush’s approach to terrorism: + 21 points.

A variation of the model was estimated by adding information from the survey on support for a constitutional amendment was added, then same-sex marriage supporters were more likely to prefer Kerry, but opponents were not more likely to support Bush. Civil unions still had no effect.

The main difference between this study and Hillygus and Shields is that terrorism is much less important here, and same-sex marriage almost as important as the economy. However, this study still finds that civil unions and same-sex marriage is less important than the Iraq war or the economy.

Votinglinks’ comments: Obvious weakness of the study is the use of data from about seven months before the election. The time lag may explain the results on terrorism since the full effect of the terror alerts and campaign strategies would not have had an effect. Lack of abortion is also a weakness. A strength is that the author does do a simple simulation to estimate the impact on the probability of voting for Bush or Kerry, which is more reliable for these kinds of statistical models than simply reading off the results the computer spits out.

Just so you know where this all is going: Votinglinks has found about fifteen studies on this topic. Two or three more that seem the most reliable and present their results in the most easily interpretable way will be summarized in detail . Then will briefly summarize the rest, and make best attempt at overall conclusion in a concluding post.

G B Lewis. Same-sex marriage and the 2004 presidential election. PSOnline (PS: Political Science & Politics) April 2005; 195-199.
(may need subscription depending on from where you access)

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Grassroots Founders, on voting: Thomas Jefferson (continued)

Did Jefferson change his mind about the unimportance of property rights and voting or was his opinion in 1776 a result of youthful rashness and revolutionary fervor? Well, here he is 40 years later, and it looks like he has even more fervor than before:

" half of our brethren who fight and pay taxes, are excluded, like Helots, from the rights of representation, as if society were instituted for the soil, and not for the men inhabiting it; or one half of these could dispose of the rights and the will of the other half, without their consent.

'What constitutes a State?
Not high-raised battlements, or labor'd mound,
Thick wall, or moated gate;
Not cities proud, with spires and turrets crown'd;
No: men, high minded men;
Men, who their duties know;
But know their rights; and knowing, dare maintain.
These constitute a State.' "

Jefferson To John Taylor, May 28, 1816

Virginia retained its property requirement for voting rights until 1829, and then substituted a wealth requirement in order to keep impoverished landowners from voting. In the passage above it's odd to see an ardent agrarian such as Jefferson say anything disparaging of 'the soil' but here he does. In the contest between agrarian landowners and voting rights, it looks like voting rights won. He compares those without the vote to Helots, the slave laborers of the ancient Spartans. He is moved to include some poetry, though I don't know who wrote it. He raises other objections to the property requirement, not mentioned before, which are the injustice and social division that exists when one segment of society is ruled without its consent. As we will see soon, these also seemed to be the same concerns of James Madison and John Marshall when they expressed their reservations about the property requirement.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

How important were ‘moral values’ issues in the 2004 election?

Here’s an interesting study by D. Hillygus and T. Shields. It’s on the importance of ‘moral values’ in determining voter preference for Bush vs. Kerry in 2004. The study used data on 2,800 individuals from a post-election survey designed to represent the entire US population. The study looked at the importance of five issues. The respondents rated each of the following five issues on a scale of 'strongly support' to 'strongly oppose' the Bush administration's position on the following, on a five point scale, with a 'neutral' choice allowed:

--Iraq war
--multilateral approach to terrorism
--jobs are secure
--abortion rights
--gay marriage

The study took into account each respondent’s sex, race, marital status, income, political ideology (conservative vs. liberal), and political affiliation (D, R, or Ind), So, the effect on each person's vote due to their position on each of the five issues can be estimated, keeping all the individual characteristics constant. The study estimated models for the whole country, the South, for independents only, battleground states only, and states with gay marriage initiatives only.

Below are the main results:

--gay marriage less important issue than Iraq war, terrorism, jobs and abortion,
--party loyalty determined vote more than any one issue,
--Republicans were more loyal to party than Democrats,
--Iraq war and terrorism position produced more defections from party than moral values issues,
--Iraq war and jobs were more important among independents than those with party ID.

The Iraq war, and job security were more important than moral values for every model estimated. Terrorism was more important in every model except for the gay marriage initiative states, where it was roughly tied for third most important issue. Abortion was more important in the South, but still less important than Iraq, terrorism and jobs.

The authors’ make an interesting observation regarding people without strong beliefs on the five issues: Bush generally found support among those who were neutral on the issues (except for those neutral on gay marriage, who usually voted for Kerry). They interpret this to mean that Bush received a second chance from people who did not have strong views on the major issues.

Voterlinks comments: This study is more reliable than looking at percentages from exit polls. The term ‘moral values’ is defined (‘abortion rights’ and ‘gay marriage’). The relationships to voter characteristics can be studied. We can see the relative importance of each issue (rather than just naming the most important one). Two main drawbacks. This was a post-election survey, so respondents truthfulness is always a question (truthfulness is always a question in these kinds of surveys even if the respondents don't intend to deceive). But it is hard to see what could be better, unless there is a data set that tracks individuals over time from beginning of campaign until right after the vote. The other big limitation is that it is the survey is limited to voters, so effects of issues on turnout cannot be studied.

Voterlinks has found a few more studies on moral issues and the 2004 election and will report on those later.

DS Hillygus and TG Shields. Moral issues and voter decision making in the 2004 presidential election. PSOnline (PS: Political Science & Politics) April 2005; 201-209.
(note: may require subscription, depending on from where you access.)

Jefferson, hypocrite?

This is a note on Jefferson's private feelings and public actions on property qualifications for voting in 1776. We have seen in one of his letters that Jefferson had no particular preference for a property requirement for voting (link). But it turns out that the draft constitution he suggested for the new state in 1776 retained a property requirement. He also submitted a bill while in the Virginia legislature that retained the property qualification.

So, what gives? How do you square his private opinion with his public actions? I think three things explain it. First, he proposed property qualifications that were far lower than most other legislators wanted, and his wouldn't have restricted the vote only to the truly rich. Second, he was passing several reform bills that were considered radical at the time: on religious freedom, a reformed criminal code, state education system, etc. I think he realized what he could pass and what he could not. Third, he also attempted to pass a bill that ensured required Virginia to provide every white male adult with enough land to meet the requirement. So, even though his proposal retained the requirement, the goal was that everyone would be able to vote.

But the notion that all the founders wanted to restrict the vote to only the wealthy dies hard Gordon Wood, in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, (p 179) assumes it, and assumes that the legislation Jefferson introduced indicates his true opinion. More on this topic when Votinglinks gets to the 'social context of democracy' section of Grassroots Founders.

Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, NY, Vintage 1999.

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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Grassroots Founders, on voting: Thomas Jefferson (continued)

The Grassroots Founders series continues.

Our society has had long running issues with the founders. There have been two main schools of popular thought. They are either demigods, whose purported instruction we must obey if we are to be well-behaved children who prosper, or they are the standard issue racist, cynical dead white males to be dissed and hissed. Votinglinks thinks that recently the demigod school has been dominant, at least in the popular media, and it periodically issues very gentle, sometimes subliminal, scoldings and tsk-tsks for deviations from Founder Right Thought.

Pundits remind us that the US is a republic, not a democracy, that mass citizen participation in government was not intended by the founders, they feared it, etc, etc. We are reminded that only respectable people with property could vote at the founding. I once heard one pundit who claimed to be a historian (!?) actually say that the founders envisioned the US to be run by rich respectable people, so that is the way things were supposed to be (Votinglinks actually heard this as a child, and was mislead for a time, and believes it was George Will who said it on national TV). One would hope this nonsense was harmless, but just to make sure it is harmless, we will check the record and debunk it.

This nonsense may not be harmless if it produces an implicit feeling that perhaps progressive, citizen grassroots mass action is not quite All-American, not quite right, perhaps even a little subversive, a departure from the way things have always been, and always should be. Lets check out good old Thomas Jefferson, writing in 1776, an auspicious year for this kind of record-checking.

" observations do not enable me to say think integrity the characteristic of wealth. [I] In general beleive the decisions of the people, in a body, will be more honest & more disinterested than those of wealthy men: & I can never doubt an attachment to his country in any man who has his family & peculium in it: -- Now as to the representative house which ought to be so constructed as to answer that character truly. I was for extending the right of suffrage (or in other words the rights of a citizen) to all who had a permanent intention of living in the country. Take what circumstances you please as evidence of this, either the having resided a certain time, or having a family, or having property, any or all of them. Whoever intends to live in a country must wish that country well, & has a natural right of assisting in the preservation of it. think you cannot distinguish between such a person residing in the country & having no fixed property, & one residing in a township whom you say you would admit to a vote. "
Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Pendleton, August 26, 1776. Papers 1:504
[bold emphasis added, and Jefferson wrote this in a hurry, so the pedantic 'sic' is omitted.]

Besides he Declaration of Independence gig, Jefferson was submitting suggestions for a new Virginia Constitution at the time he wrote this. Note that the founders did not speak to voting qualifications very much through official documents, since almost all voter qualifications were left to the states to decide, but here Jefferson wanted to democratize the Virginia state constitution. This passage indicates that Jefferson did not think the vote should be restricted to the rich for the lower house of the state legislature at all. He lists owning property as a possible requirement, but shows no particular favor for it, and suggests requirements that do not include any test of wealth at all.

Earlier in the letter Jefferson comments that the terms 'upper' and 'lower' house should really be reversed, which I am including just so you know where his heart was.

But this was in 1776, maybe Jefferson was all swept away, excited, hot-headed and all. He was young, and, to be quite blunt, he was a notorious revolutionist at the time. Later posts will check the record on what he thought when he was a much older, wiser man, with a status quo to defend.

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Pounding the Founding into Pabulum: John Adams' last words to his country

The founding of the US has been largely turned into a ceremonial civic religion. The Founding Fathers are the pantheon. Nothing that disturbs the honorific proceedings is welcome. Votinglinks presents John Adams’ last words to his country as a case study. Here is the usual story of John Adams' words for the Fourth of July 1826, the day on which he died:

" Adams attempted to write nothing so ambitious [as Jefferson had], and probably, given his condition, it would have proved impossible... 'The old man fails fast.' the Reverend George Whitney recorded after another visit...
...Whitney and a small delegation of town leaders made a formal call on Adams, ... They had come, they told the old patriot, to ask for a toast that they might read aloud at Quncy’s celebration on the Fourth.
'I will give you.' Adams said 'Independence Forever!' Asked if he would like to add something more, he replied, 'Not a word.' "
from John Adams, David McCullough, Simon and Schuster 2002, p 645.

A similar story is told in all the other print biographies and internet histories that Votinglinks has seen, for example:

But the inspiring slogan "Independence forever!" is not Adams' last statement in full. Here is the more complete story, as reported in Passionate Sage by Joseph Ellis, a very interesting book on John Adams’ mature political thought. Adams had in fact sent a reply to the Quincy delegation before its visit:

" [Adams] acknowledged that the revolutionary era had been 'a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race.' but the jury was still out on its significance. He warned that America was 'destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall in time to come be shaped by the human mind.' Posterity, in short, would not only judge, it would play an active role in shaping the outcome. This was a disconcerting message for patriotic celebrants gathered to dispense praise rather than accept challenge, but it was also vintage Adams irreverence. When a delegation from Quincy called on him a few days later to request a clarifying statement that might be presented as a toast in his behalf at the celebration, Adams uncharacteristically offered only an enigma ‘I will give you INDEPENDENCE FOREVER,' he replied. When prodded to enumerate, he refused. 'Not a word.' he insisted. "
from Passionate Sage, Joseph J. Ellis, New York, Norton 1993, pp 205-206.
[bold emphasis added]

Strangely, McCullough’s biography of Adams presents an extensive excerpt from Jefferson’s famous passage that was also written for that same Fourth of July, the day on which Jefferson also died, but not one word of Adams' statement:

" May it be to the world, ... the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them. "
Jefferson to Roger Weightman, Jne 24, 1826

Jefferson’s words are very inspiring, and they make us all feel very good. Adams’ are more thought provoking. Adams’ statement emphasizes that the meaning of the American Revolution will unfold continuously over the future, for either good or ill, and that it is a function of what we believe, think, decide and do now, today, right here and now, in the face of current events, problems and opportunities... and by how what we think and do today will shape the future from now on. That puts the responsibility for the meaning of the American Revolution on us, right now. And the slogan ‘Independence Forever’ takes on a very different meaning in that light. It seems now to be a warning, an advice, and piece of reality therapy, as much a celebratory toast. Not so comforting, not so feel-good. Is it not odd that McCullough would quote Thomas Jefferson’s last statement extensively but not give one single clue about that of John Adams in a biography of Adams? Votinglinks agrees with Ellis, who adds that Adams word are "much truer and representative of the traditional values that he and Jefferson had come to symbolize."

The Adams statement doesn’t appear in any Adams quotes pages, that Voterlinks has seen. For example:

Adams’ last words are useful and instructive. Why don’t we see them today? What’s wrong with them? Do they not fit into our official civic religion? And if not, why not? Has the whole business become an enterainment, an after-school special, soothing propaganda, in a word, subversive pabulum?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Turnout: high and low these days?

Conventional wisdom says voter turnout is lower than ever, always getting lower, and democracy's doomed. This CW says the 1992 and 2004 presidential turnouts were higher than usual, but still dismal compared to the good old days from 1950 to the early 1960s. Is that really true? Maybe not so much.

The doom approach comes from comparing voter turnout to total resident Voting Age Population (VAP), which is often done in the media. But the proportion of people who can't vote among the VAP has been increasing rapidly due to the ever larger proportion of non-citizens living in the US, and of people in prison, on parole or probation (the 'ineligible'). Prof. Michael McDonald, an election expert at George Mason University and Brookings, has found that accounting for the reduction in the proportion of citizen eligible voters in the VAP makes a big difference. Citizens overseas are eligible to vote, so they should be included too (but as a proportion of total population, they have been roughly constant, so this makes little difference in looking at trends).

Votinglinks downloaded his data and played around (data from ) . Graph 1 below, shows some of MdDonald's results in a different way. You can see that ineligibles (dark circles) has increased steadily as a proportion of the VAP. The total ineligible and non-citizen proportion of VAP (open circles) went from about 4% to nearly 10% over the last twenty-five years.

Graph 1.-- Proportion of ineligible persons and non-citizens of VAP in US.

Lets call the VAP adjusted for ineligibles, resident non-citizens and citizens overseas the Voting Eligible Population (VEP). Graph 2 below shows a recalculation of McDonald's results on voter turnout using the VEP (the line with the black circles). Turnout looks better. There is a zigzag pattern due to the off-year elections, but turnout in 1992 and 2004 was about 60%. That's almost as high as the glory days of the 1950s. McDonald has a series of turnout ratios going back to 1948 (Take a look: In McDonald's graph there is a long low turnout period starting after 1968 from which we may be recovering, finally. We were almost back in 1992, and 2004. Turnout is actually quite volatile, and can jump from low to high within one election cycle. The 1992 election had the highest turnout in 25 years and is sandwiched between two elections with the lowest turnouts in about 40 years of presidential contests. Using McDonald's, data, the average change over four years between similar elections is about 4% of the vote, about 9 million for presidential, and 4 million for off-year elections.

Graph 2.--Voter turnout and registration ratios using the VEP.

But are things getting totally peachy again? Maybe not, in terms of what proportion of registered voters show up at the polls. Look at the line with open circles in Graph 2. That is the ratio of registered voters to the VEP, using FEC data on registration downloaded from Infoplease ( Registration has been going up quite a bit faster than the turnout as proportion of VEP. And the registered voter to VEP ratio seems quite a bit more stable than the turnout ratio. It might be fun to look at turnout as a proportion of registered voters. It might be informative too, since it shows voting as a proportion of people interested enough (or badgered enough during GOTV campaigns) to get ready to actually vote. That's in Graph 3 below, using same data as above.

Graph 3.--Registration to VEP, and turnout to registration ratios.

Note: some years not shown due to incomplete data.

Graph 3 shows a totally different picture. When you look at voter turnout as a proportion of registered voters, there has been a steep decline since at least the early 1960s. Turnout as a function of registration is also quite volatile: in 1992 it was higher than it had been in twenty years, and right after the worst turnout to registration ratio that we can see. Also note that while both the 1992 and 2004 elections were close to the high turnout ratios of forty and fifty years ago, only 1992 was high in terms of turning out registered voters. All elections after 1992, both presidential and congressional, had low turnouts relative to the pool of registered voters available on election day. It doesn't seem to be related to any change in aggregate number of registered voters, since that has been steadily increasing at about the same rate since 1986. The turnout to registation ratio is slowly increasing, but the larger gap between turnout and registration seems roughly constant.

For the overall health of democracy, the total turnout as a proportion of the VEP is most important. But for campaign work close to an election, turnout as a proportion of registered voters is all that matters, since that is the pool of potential voters. Seems like there is a message here regarding the importance of GOTV efforts after the registration deadline has past.

No speculations offered here as to why for any of this. I am not an expert on the politics of it, and there must be several plausible stories, given all the serious history and campaign tricks that happened over this period. Whether the increasing prison population, etc., is a good thing or not, or is related is a separate issue. So, will wrap up with what I think are the main lessons, just looking at the numbers:

  • Turnout as proportion of VEP is lower than in 1950s and 1960s, but seems to be gradually recovering to those previous high levels.
  • Turnout as proportion of VEP and registration is quite volatile.
  • Registration rates highest ever, and increasing at a constant rate.
  • Turnout as a function or registered voters is low compared to 1960s, and seems to have fallen off a cliff after 1992.

Votinglinks has not figured out comments in the few days since this blog started, but the e-mail address is at the bottom of the page. Comments, thoughts or pointing out errors would be greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Grassroots Founders, on voting: Thomas Jefferson

" The influence over government must be shared among all the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates of the ultimate authority, the government will be safe; because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth: and public ones cannot be provided but by levies on the people. In this case every man would have to pay his own price. The government of Great-Britain has been corrupted, because but one man in ten has a right to vote for members of parliament. The sellers of the government therefore get nine-tenths of their price clear. It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people: but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption. "

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 14: Laws

[emphasis added]

This passage is a continuation of the quote from yesterday’s post. Founders’ quotes can be tricky -we may not be sure what all the words meant to them... may be why people usually quote short oracular ones to prove all sorts of stuff. What does ‘all the people’ mean, or ‘mass’? For voting, ‘all the people’ meant white guys in Virginia back then. Maybe Jefferson meant just the rich, or educated white guys, too. But reading further, it's clear that Jefferson meant the poor as well as the rich.

We think of Jefferson as a visionary, who give thick inspirational shtick for his beliefs. But here he's almost cynical, or being more practical than usual. He fears that if only a relative few vote, they'll be easier to corrupt. Some crooks in government, or some wealthy, powerful group outside the government, could buy the whole shebang pretty cheap by bribing (or demagoging, or scaring, or lying to, etc.) them. He implies that the wealthy can be corrupted just as the poor can. Put cynically, is he saying that if some one is going to buy the country and corrupt the whole thing, including the government, why let them get it cheap? Less cynically, he is saying that if everyone votes, it will be impossible to buy, and impossible to corrupt.

Nincompated pedagoguery, being quite the thing these days, might point out that in a democracy with majority rule you only have to buy half plus one of everybody. Or you just need the ‘marginal voter.’ But usually there are more than one of those, and they can be hard to spot. So I think Jefferson’s point stands -probably easier to buy the country on the cheap if a smaller number of people vote than a larger.

The next and last passage of the chapter is very inspiring, though: 'Lastly, it is proposed, by a bill in this revisal, to begin a public library and gallery, by laying out a certain sum annually in books, paintings, and statues.'

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India had the first democracies?

It's unclear when democracy, or some kind of republican government, began. Democracy may go back many thousands of years among some Native American nations. Ancient Greece usually gets the credit for democracy, or republican government, among more 'advanced' civilizations with large cities, social hierarchies, and specialized technologies, professions, and a powerful military class.

Maybe India was the first. Greek democracy developed between 600 - 500 BCE. But from before 600 BCE there were several large societies in northeastern India that were republics, perhaps approached democracy. They were part of a group of nations called the Mahajanapadas, which are mentioned in ancient Buddhist texts. Their democracy was probably limited to the upper classes, maybe only the warrior class. But the caste system was still developing, and there are indications of significant social mobility. So perhaps in some ways they were more democratic than Ancient Greece, with its slave-owing, wealthy, but free, democratic elite, and the slaves, who were stuck down at the bottom. (Greek slaves, and their descendents, very rarely obtained full political rights, even if they were freed.)

Apparently, Buddha adopted traditions of the Indian republics when he developed rules for his followers. Most Buddhist monastic orders choose their leaders through consultation and agreement, sometimes by elections held by the monks and nuns, or the lay community that they serve. Buddha also advised that a group's important decisions should be made democratically.

Ancient Greek democracies also only lasted two hundred years or so. But some of the ancient Indian republics may have lasted until 200 - 400 CE. So maybe India should get the laurels for long-lived republics in recorded history... some of them may have lasted longer than modern democracies, so far.

Then, there's the idea that ancient Indian republics did not so much invent democracy, as figure out how to adapt older traditions to their changing civilization. They retained elements of their older democracies from when they were small tribal societies like those of the Native Americans.

Whether India had the first example of something new, or the last of something old, it probably should get some credit for democracy and republican government, along with Greece.

I'm not blowing smoke here, check these out:

Most of the info in this post is from:
A History of India: Volume 1, by Romila Thapar, Penguin, 1990
(book where I stumbled across this)
(academic paper, with bibliography)

... found these while looking for more:
(blurb for a recent book -have not seen it, but looks interesting)
(Wikipedia article about the Mahajanapadas)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

votinglinks issue number one

The influence over government must be shared among all the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates of the ultimate authority, the government will be safe...

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 14

The fool has as great a right to express his opinion by vote as the wise, because he is equally free, and equally master of himself.

Thomas Jefferson, Address to the Cherokee Nation, 1809


Votinglinks is a blog on democracy, voting and elections, with the aim of increasing interest and participation in elections. Votinglinks has no special expertise in the area, except perhaps in political polling and surveys (the chief of the very small Votinglinks crew is an applied statistician). But we will do our best.

Planned features include posts on various facets of democratic government, voting and elections: history, systems, current controversies, international comparisons, election integrity, etc.

A periodic feature will be “The Grassroots Founders,” which will feature quotes and passages from writings of the US Founding Fathers regarding democracy, elections, voting, and citizen participation in the governing of the nation (with Votinglinks’ comments, of course!)

There is an associated internet site, with an e-mail address for contact. No comments for now, since Votinglinks is still figuring them out, and may not be able to devote the time to comment maintenance. We will see about that. But e-mail the internet site and the blog will see it.