A closer look at voter turnout
Marin Krause, Twin Cities Compass
The Compass Civic Engagement Advisory group selected voter turnout as an important measure of civic engagement in the region. Civic Engagement helps foster strong communities, and has been linked with psychological well-being, critical thinking and analytical skills, and a decrease in risky behaviors such as drugs and violence.
Over 2 million Twin Cities residents voted in last year's election. This equates to approximately 76% of the voting-age population – 20 percentage points ahead of the national voter turnout rate. No surprises there! Minnesota typically leads the nation in voter participation. However, what is somewhat surprising is that Minnesota's turnout rate increased by only one percentage point over the last presidential election in 2004, and the Twin Cities' turnout rate actually decreased by one percentage point.
In a state that leads the nation in turnout rates, I would have expected to see a fairly large increase in participation, especially in an election that not only did not have an incumbent running, but also guaranteed either the first African American president or the first woman vice president. The U.S. as a whole saw an increase of about two percentage points in voter turnout rates over the 2004 election.
The media typically report on turnout by registered voters. This, of course, excludes those who are not registered and results in the highest calculation. Compass, based on guidance from project advisors, instead reports the percentage of the voting age population – whether registered or not – that voted. This results in a lower, but more inclusive, rate.
A third measure of turnout refines the “voting age population” rate a bit by excluding those ineligible to vote. This adjusted, “voting-eligible” measure excludes non-citizen residents and convicted felons. This adjustment increases the U.S. rate from 57% to 62%, and the Minnesota rate from 73% to 78%. To show you what this third measure means for Minnesota, two graphs have been added to the voter turnout series on Compass: (1) a look at the state population by voter eligibility and (2) a trendline showing the percentage of voting-eligible population that voted from 1996 to 2008.
Voter turnout rates are usually calculated using the total number of people who voted and the census estimates of the voting-age (18+) population. However, these population estimates include many people who are ineligible to vote, including non-citizen residents and convicted felons, and fail to include citizens overseas. This adjusted, voting-eligible population is used by the United States Election Project and is available at the state level.
While the voting-eligible population is not calculated at a local level, here is an example of how it can be useful: In the Twin Cities region, the suburbs show a much higher voter turnout than the central cities, with around 79% and 68% of voting-age citizens showing up at the polls in the 2008 election, respectively. However, this might reflect a higher population of residents in Minneapolis and St. Paul who are ineligible to vote.
The voter-eligible population is calculated by taking the total population, subtracting out the non-citizens and ineligible felons, and adding the overseas eligible population. Here is this calculation for the U.S. for 2008:
230,917,360 U.S. voting-age population (18+)
-19,806,432 Approximate non-citizen population (8.6% of total U.S. population)
- 3,363,118 Total ineligible felon population
+4,972,217 Overseas eligible population
Therefore, by subtracting out those who are ineligible to vote and adding those who are but were previously excluded from population estimates, we can get a more accurate picture of the voting population.
On a state level, the total ineligible felon population includes those who are in prison, on probation, and on parole, according to individual state laws. However, the number of overseas eligible voters cannot be added in at the state level because there is no way of determining which state should be assigned the votes.
There are several other possible adjustments that could be made to try to further improve the voter-eligible population such as: those ineligible to vote due to mental incompetence, felons who are permanently ineligible to vote (also set by state law), and people who move after the close of voter registration (in which case they could vote in their former state of residence). With the upcoming 2010 Decennial Census, the yearly intercensal estimates will be further adjusted to align with the new population counts.
Regardless of how the rates are calculated, the region's high rate of voter turnout is something to be proud of, and a strength to be built upon, as we work to improve our quality of life.
Marin Krause worked on Compass in summer 2009 as a research intern. At Wilder Research, she assisted the Compass team in uploading and verifying data to ensure its integrity in preparation for the implementation and launch of Minnesota Compass. Marin is a senior at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.