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Interpreting a Low-Turnout Election

Interpreting a Low-Turnout Election

President Barack Obama made an interesting comment in the middle of his post-election press conference last Wednesday. He said: "Still, as president, I have a unique responsibility to try and make this town work. So, to everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you. To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too". Then, later he came back to the theme saying: "…part of what I also think we've got to look at is that two-thirds of people who were eligible to vote just didn't vote."

The president's remarks were technically not quite correct. The latest estimate from the United States Elections Project and its director Dr. Michael McDonald is that about 36.3% of the voting-eligible population voted in the midterm elections, a little more than one-third. The voting-eligible population excludes those who are 18 and older but ineligible to vote, including non-citizens, and those in prison, on probation or on parole who are ineligible felons. About 33.6% of all voting-age population voted, which is closer to the third mentioned by the president. But the 36% is the more reasonable estimate, given that those who are not eligible shouldn't be counted in the denominator when the voting turnout is estimated. But the general idea is correct. Turnout was low. In fact, McDonald estimates that this will be the lowest turnout in a midterm election since World War II.

At any rate, what do we assume was the president's motivation in pointing out this low turnout figure, regardless of what it was precisely? One motivation behind his comments, no doubt, was an effort to downplay the significance of the election outcome. That's evident from a comment he made later in his press conference, when he talks about the higher levels of turnout achieved during his successful election as president in 2008 and 2012, saying, "One of the things that I'm very proud of in 2008 and 2012 when I ran for office was we got people involved who hadn't been involved before. We got folks to vote who hadn't voted before, particularly young people." In other words, Obama is reminding the nation that these midterm election results, while certainly legal in the way in which representatives are elected, are not necessarily reflective of the thoughts, feelings, desires, attitudes and opinions of the entire population. That helps him reduce dissonance over the results, of course, although it was his party that failed to reproduce the type of turnout that characterized 2008 and 2012.

But it does bring up an important philosophic point about the role of elections and the public at large, and most importantly, the job description of elected representatives. Political scientists and theorists have researched and analyzed this line of thought in highly complex ways for years. The essential point is that, in the U.S., with its very low-turnout elections, a relatively small segment of the population can be responsible -- particularly in midterm elections -- for electing individuals to office who may represent their (the voters) positions and attitudes, but who don't necessarily reflect the positions and attitudes of the entire population of the district or state they are elected to represent.

Who it is that elected representatives should represent when they arrive in Washington -- the segment of the population who elected them or the entire population back home or in the nation at large? Some argue that representatives should represent the voters who came out to vote, essentially saying that the burden lies on the population who want their positions represented to get that accomplished by voting. And if they don't get out and vote, they lose their chance to have their positions represented. The other position is that, regardless of who votes, the representative owes it to him or herself and his or her country to represent all of the people back home. This latter perspective is akin to what Obama is getting at -- that he is "hearing" the "two-thirds" of Americans who didn't vote, and presumably that this means that the low turnout mitigates the perceived idea of a "mandate" for the Republican agenda. Obama's remarks were also reflective of his fundamental focus on the underprivileged and less successful and minorities, whose causes he champions, emphasizing that while they may not have voted in proportionate numbers to their population percentage, their issues and concerns must be taken into account.

But the bottom line is that about 36% of eligible voters voted. Since that calculation is across all districts and states, the percentage is actually much less in some states and in some districts. The United States Elections Project, for example, estimates that just 28% of eligible voters turned out in Indiana, apparently the lowest statewide turnout in the nation. Voters sent politicians to Washington to represent…whom? That's the central question.

To the degree that the elected leaders want to represent all Americans, we certainly can make available to them the information detailing exactly what problems the people want them to fix. In fact, our just completed, post-election assessment of the most important problem facing the country shows that the people view the biggest issues as 1) the economy, 2) dysfunctional government and 3) immigration -- with healthcare, the deficit, education, terrorism and poverty coming in behind those. These assessments of problems are essentially similar to what we found when we more directly asked Americans what it was they wanted the newly elected Congress to do. The big two concerns in all these surveys are the economy and the way government works/doesn't work, with specific issues coming in behind.

How the new Republican majorities in the two Houses will interpret their representational responsibilities in light of these national priorities will be an important factor to watch when the new Congress gets going in January.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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