Warning: don’t believe the American Presidential election turnout myth

You’ve seen the stories: massively effective political machines, using the latest techniques, registering and then mobilising people in unprecedented numbers, leading to big early voting, huge queues at the polls on the day and colossal turnout.

One problem though: it’s a myth. For all the numerous reports, headlines and footage we’ve had telling us the story of turnout soaring up, up and away, the truth is starting to emerge that, actually, turnout was pretty much the same as four years ago. Overall it looks as if turnout will be 61-62%, only slightly up on 2004’s 61% turnout. 2004 was a relatively high turnout year, so increasing turnout slightly on that is nothing to be ashamed of – but neither is it the story the media has been selling.

What conclusions can we draw from this?

First, it is a reminder of how stories can become the accepted wisdom in the media (both online as well as offline) and continue to run even when the evidence doesn’t stack up. There were understandable reasons for predictions of high turnout to have been made prior to the election, but right from the first batch of complete state voting figures, the true turnout picture has started to emerge. The myth though is continuing to linger.

Second, it is far from clear that the Obama GOTV operation was nearly as good as it has been painted in the initial wave of victory euphoria. Where was the surge in turnout? Granted that its impact may have been muted in the overall figures by a lower turnout amongst Republican supporters, less motivated to vote this time than they were in 2004. But overall turnout only inching up suggests, at the very least, that the case hasn’t been made that – despite it looking very impressive – the Obama GOTV operation really delivered lots of extra votes.

Third, it is a rather tired cliché that shots of long lines of people queuing up to vote in the US equal dramatic turnout. The truth is, they don’t tell us anything. A random selection of long queues from across a hugely varied country with a population six times the size of the UK doesn’t say anything about overall turnout levels.

Indeed, if you take a step back it is not even clear why such pictures are used to consistently across different American elections to tell a positive story about people turning out to vote. They could just as well accompany stories of embarrassment and shame at the state of American democracy: why can’t the elections be organised so that people don’t have long queues (as plenty of other countries manage)? And do the long queues in some areas reflect partisan attempts by the politicians in charge of electoral administration details to put off their opponents from voting?

Some of the most moving footage I’ve seen of elections has been of huge queues at the first genuinely democratic elections in a country – particularly in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. But American is no newcomer to organising elections. It’s simply convention that long queues are painted as being good, rather than bad.

Fourth, let’s not beat ourselves up too much about the state of our own democracy here in the UK. Turnout in the 2008 Presidential election will come out at around 5% higher than in our last general election, when calculated on a like-for-like basis.* Five points or so lower, yes, but then in 2005 the British election result was widely seen as a foregone conclusion, there was no Obama like leader to inspire voters and it was generally seen as a poor turnout. And yet only five or so points lower than the already much lauded turnout in this year’s US election.

Fifth, for those looking to technology to raise turnout, the ongoing failure to provide a secure, reliable and not ridiculously expensive technological solution to make it easier for US troops overseas to vote should be a warning about the limitations of online voting technology in practice.

There was much hugely impressive about the way campaigns were managed and run in the US this year. But we shouldn’t blind ourselves to the limitations to what they achieved, or neglect the fact that much of it was due to the huge sums available for spending: around $650 million in total was brought in by just the Obama campaign.

UPDATE: As it has come up in a couple of comments, it’s worth stressing that the number of US adults this year is several million higher than it was in 2004. So just because there were more voters for a particular candidate or in a particular state than four years ago doesn’t necessarily tell us anything other than that the population has grown. That’s certainly not to say that all changes can be put down to population changes – but it means that you can’t just assume “higher numbers = someone has done something right”.

* Turnout in the US is measured as a percentage of the qualifying adult population, rather than as a percentage of those of the electoral register; in the UK the latter measure is used, but estimates of the non-registration rate in the UK from the Electoral Commission and ONS can be used to adjust the UK figure to an estimated equivalent of the US figure. The 2005 general election turnout would have been around 56% on this basis.

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