Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fractions, Onions, and Inactive Voters

Much of this blog thus far has been an intro, the setup to the plot.

You're meeting the characters and getting some of the background so posts over the spring and summer are 10 paragraphs instead of 100.

This is one of those background pieces.

I traded emails with a friend this weekend about turnout this November and reminded him that I've been predicting a drop in the turnout, 2012 from 2008, since the day after the 2008 presidential election.

That's important, because if the turnout is lower, the convenient story line will be that it happened because of Photo ID.  That won't be why--photo ID legislation was barely a gleam in the eye when I began predicting lower turnout in 2012  3 1/2 years ago.

I believe the Johnson County turnout will be 75 percent, down from 78 percent in 2008.  I have some thoughts as to why the turnout will be lower and will present that in future posts.

For now, I wanted to take you back to the third-grade and suggest that turnout percentage is merely the first layer of the onion.  As a third-grader, I did not like onions, but that's also when I hit fractions and division with zeal, and that's the part of the third-grade we're visiting.

You see, turnout percentage is simply the number of voters divided by the number of registered voters.

Unless, in Kansas, if you are looking at a mail-ballot election, where turnout reported to the Secretary of State is the number of voters divided by the number of active voters.  For purposes of our website reporting in those elections, though, we show the percentage "straight"--votes divided by voters.

Active and inactive voters become terminology needed to understand turnout.  That's because a turnout percentage relies on the numerator (the number of voters in this case) as much as it does the denominator (the number of eligible voters).  Year to year, state to state, these simple variables can, um, vary.

Inactive voters would be eligible voters if they came into the polling place to vote.  But it is highly unlikely they will do that.

Inactive is code for, "We don't think you live there anymore."  Once inactive, a voter is included in the denominator (the number of eligible voters) although the likelihood of the inactive voter voting is very small.

How does someone move from active to inactive?

Some communities use the post office's national change of address (NCOA) to get updates.  Johnson County utilized NCOA about 25 years ago and it was essentially a disaster because the county's street guide doesn't always match the post office's and the result can be someone living on a border street being reclassified to the wrong city and getting the wrong ballot.

Postcard Mailed in Roeland Park
The other method of verifying addresses, by federal law, is to send a confirmation mailing to all active voters once a year.  That's what we do.

Every election, we send a postcard to each registered voter who's not inactive.  The postcard tells the voter about the upcoming election but the postcard can't be forwarded.  If returned to us, we flag the voter as inactive and send a second mailing that can be forwarded.  This mailing is a, "Whassup?  Did you move?" kind of notice where we ask the voter to modify his or her registration or inform us of a change.

If nothing changes on the voter's record from that point, and the voter doesn't vote, the voter can be removed from the registration list after two federal elections.  So, someone marked inactive with the upcoming Roeland Park election would be removed after the November 2014 election.  If the voter votes in that time, the voter becomes active again.

So, at any time, the voter registration list has a fair number of people registered who no longer live at the address registered.  And, by law, they can't be removed.

Factors influence the number of inactive voters.  One major factor is the economy--people have moved less frequently, I suspect, over the last two years and that makes trending on percentages alone imperfect.

Another factor is the cards themselves.  We began sending them before every election in 2007.  The frequency of the cards and elections illuminates someone as a potential inactive voter much earlier than an annual mailing only.  Depending on the timing of the inactive tag, someone could remain on the rolls for 2.5 to 4 years.

Because the purging happens after a November election, the number of inactive voters is highest heading into a gubernatorial or presidential election.  Thus, the denominator is larger than it should be if you were looking for an accurate turnout percentage.

Whew, that's a lot of typing, and I've only scratched the surface.  But, in looking at turnout, start with the numerator--voters.

Voters are real and it helps me if I start thinking about how many of them will vote in advance, and how many of those who vote in advance will do so by mail or at one of our in-person locations and then, further, how many would vote at each of those locations.

In many ways, the percentage is meaningless.  Number of actual voters is the true metric.

There will be a lot written (and there has been a lot written) about voter participation and turnout.  It almost always is in terms of percent.  If you're digging into it, take a bite out of the onion and go beyond the first layer of numbers to draw meaningful conclusions.