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True The Vote Fudges the Numbers in New Turnout Study

by Andrea Levien // Published February 28, 2013

Within 13 hours of posting this blog, True the Vote updated its report to delete all references to its voter turnout findings. Its authors instead put in a single sentence: "After new data being made available regarding 2012 turnout rates, True the Vote is currently reassessing its methodology for comparing the impacts voter ID laws. This report will be updated shortly." To read the now-deleted original report, click here. Given the initial coverage of the report's findings on voter turnout, such as at Breitbart.com, we hope that True the Vote will apologize more directly for its error in its updated report. We also are puzzled about its reference to" new turnout data", as Michael McDonald's report on 2012 voter turnout (analogous to his 2008 data used by True the Vote in its report) has been available for weeks.

 

True the Vote, an organization dedicated to eradicating voter fraud through controversial methods, issued a report on February 27 concluding that voter ID laws and other election changes allegedly meant to reduce voter fraud not only did not have an adverse impact on turnout in the 2012 elections, but may have helped to increased turnout. Its findings have been trumpeted by many news outlets who do not believe such laws suppress voter turnout.

But it turns out the report’s authors made a huge methodological mistake. They compared turnout of eligible voters in 2008 to turnout of registered voters in 2012. Correcting this error reverses their findings. All but one of the states with these new laws experienced a decline in voter turnout, and most experienced a decline greater than the national turnout decline from 2008 to 2012.

Take Florida, for example. True the Vote addressed the claim made by Ohio State University professor Theodore Allen that long lines on Election Day deterred as many as 201,000 Florida voters from reaching the polls. It claimed that Florida’s voter turnout actually increased by 4.9 percentage points (to 71.5%). In reality, Florida’s turnout decreased by 2.6%, dropping from 66.6% in 2008 to 64.0% in 2012.

True the Vote used numbers that skewed their results in their favor when analyzing turnout in every single state they tested. Here’s how the report’s authors explained their methodology: “Data demonstrating 2008 voter participation rates was furnished by George Mason University, calculating turnout based on Total Voting Age Popular (TVAP), [subtracting] those deemed ineligible to vote according to respective state laws. This report calculated 2012 TVAP utilizing current estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.”

Basing 2008 turnout calculations on the work of George Mason University’s Michael McDonald is a good decision. A highly respected scholar, McDonald calculates turnout of eligible voters by dividing the number of ballots cast in a state by the number of people who are eligible to vote in a given election (the voting eligible population). Using this method, McDonald found Florida’s voter turnout to be 66.6% in 2008 and 64.0% in 2012.

True the Vote, however, compared McDonald’s 2008 turnout numbers with a very different measure for 2012 turnout: the turnout found by dividing the number of ballots cast by the number of registered voters in 2012, rather than the number of eligible voters. Because there are fewer people registered to vote than there are people who are eligible to vote, the registered voter turnout using this calculation is significantly higher than eligible voter turnout.

Some of the differences were even more skewed than in Florida. In Georgia, where turnout in 2008 was 62.7%, True the Vote claimed that turnout increased by 9.5 percentage points, to 72.2%. In fact, using Michael McDonald’s turnout measures for both elections, Georgia’s 2012 turnout was only 58.7%, a four percentage point decrease from 2008 and a full 13.5 percentage points lower than True the Vote’s claim.

Here are other examples of True the Vote’s errors:

State

True the Vote's 2008 turnout (eligible voters) 

2012 Registered Voters

2012 Vote Totals

True the Vote's 2012 turnout (registered voters)

GMU 2012 turnout (eligible voters)

Alabama*

61.0%

 3,166,202

 2,074,338

65.5%

58.9%

Florida*

66.6%

 11,934,446

 8,538,264

71.5%

64.0%

Georgia*

62.7%

 5,428,980

 3,939,355

72.6%

58.7%

Kansas*

63.5%

 1,771,252

 1,182,771

66.8%

58.1%

Maryland

67.8%

 3,693,600

 2,714,600

73.5%

66.2%

Pennsylvania

64.2%

 8,504,410

 5,736,359

67.5%

59.4%

Tennessee*

57.4%

 4,013,242

 2,478,870

61.8%

52.6%

Virginia

67.6%

 5,428,833

 3,896,846

71.8%

66.9%

* Signifies that state had an identification law that critics worries would suppress turnout.

Once recalibrated, True the Vote’s claim that states with new voter ID laws, enacted or pending, experienced an increase in turnout is patently false. When using the correct numbers, all of these states experienced a decrease in voter turnout. In fact, a majority of these states experienced a decrease in turnout greater than the average national decrease of 3.8 percentage points. In addition, every state that True the Vote listed in its chart, including states without these laws, but which the report surveyed for voter suppression complaints, experienced a decrease in turnout, except for the swing state of Nevada. 

True the Vote should correct this error and explain that voter turnout in fact decreased in these states. This is not to say that this turnout decline was necessarily because of these new laws. Every state True the Vote surveyed that experienced a turnout decrease greater than the national average was also either an ignored spectator state or a state that experienced a sharp decrease in presidential campaign attention between 2008 and 2012. But to contend the turnout in these states increased, and that somehow voter ID laws are to thank for this increase, makes True the Vote’s findings not very true at all.

 

Written with FairVote's executive director Rob Richie.