Monday, November 7, 2011

Cranky Monday Blogging 3


This one isn't perhaps quite as annoying, but you know, when you're cranky, everything hits you that way. William Galston made the case for compulsory voting in the NYT yesterday...I don't have strong feelings about his main argument, one way or another. I think I'm marginally anti-Australia, but I'm open to arguments.

So I have no problem with this main point. I did get pretty annoyed by the kitchen sink arguments he made in support of it, however.

First: Were "turnout rates much higher" in the 1950s and 1960s than they are now? No, not really. The go-to expert on this is Michael McDonald, and he finds that turnout rates among voting-eligibles is basically similar in 2004-2008 as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. And don't forget that the "voting-eligible" group isn't the same: overall turnout rates are brought down by the terrible participation of 18-20 year olds who were ineligible in the past. Turnout rates dipped in the 1970s, but have now basically recovered.

Second, Galston's story about political parties isn't really right. He has political machines dominating in the 1950s and 1960s, but that's not true in most places, although there is certainly a lot of variation around the nation and a fair amount of disagreement about exactly what happened (somewhat relevant recommendations for those who are interested: David Mayhew's Placing Parties, and Alan Ware's Breakdown of Democratic Party Organization, 1940-1980). I don't think we know as a fact (and I hope someone will correct or confirm this in comments if there's more evidence that I'm not aware of), but I'm fairly confident that there was a lot more person-to-person mobilization in 2004 and 2008 than in, say, 1956.

Third: polarization. Really? I really don't think there's any relationship at all between voting turnout, at least not general election turnout, and polarization. Whatever you think of partisan polarization, I just can't see that it's changed at all by getting everyone to vote. Now, if we had mandatory voting, including by weak partisans and true independents, in primary elections, yes, that could change things. But Galston quite sensibly isn't advocating that, and so mandatory voting in general elections just isn't likely to affect polarization.

Oh, also: negative ads don't drive down turnout.

Again: none of this really pushes me one way or another on the question of whether the US should go with the Australian approach. But I'd really rather that NYT pieces get the basics right, whatever the arguments they're making.


  1. A few comments:
    -I'm not aware of any relationship in the public as an aggregate between polarization and turnout rates. Most of that is because, a la Fiorina, the public isn't really all that polarized. Elites are, but Fiorina considers that just "sorting." I disagree on both points, but it's more like a difference in degree than kind. HOWEVER, there is a robust relationship between strength of an individual's partisanship (and, to a lesser degree, ideology) and turnout. Independents/moderates just don't vote as much as partisans/ideologues. Now, the underlying distribution of partisan strength changes pretty glacially, so it doesn't really drive much in aggregate turnout rates.

    -Negative ads and turnout. I'd say the research is decidedly mixed. Basically, I think I've seen just about every effect under the sun demonstrated AND refuted. Ansohlabhere & Iyengar argued that negative ads demobilize independents; Goldstein & Freedman argued that they increase the salience of the election and could INCREASE turnout; Jamieson et. al. found that negative ads decreased both vote share and turnout (of the target). In other words, the research on this seems, to me, to be VERY unclear. Lau, Sigelman & Rovner summarized it a few years back, and essentially the conclusion is: "meh"

  2. Fact challenged - he's apparently got the right credentials to get some real estate in the NY Times.

    Just found you - think I'm going to be a fan!

  3. I can easily say that, as an Aussie who takes a fair bit of interest in US politics, that this seems to be a sensible way to do things. I've often thought it would take a lot of the money and some of the passion out of politics as people have to vote (no money for GOTV operations) and therefore less pandering to partisans. Certainly Australian politics is a lot more boring than the US version (hence the more interest I have in the US politics). Certainly the two main parties in Australian politics seem much closer than the Democrats or Republicans are, but I'm sure there are more reasons for that than just mandatory voting.

  4. Way O/T, but loosely related by the notion that the media prefers memes to interpretation, I've spared a thought or two for the vapidity of political media during the unfolding shitstorm at Penn State.

    To their credit, the sports folks I listen to have been distancing themselves from Paterno, but the reporting on his imminent demise is like a whodunit caper - will St. Joe finally get his comeuppance from the Board of Regents?

    Sort of sad because even a brain-dead sports fan can go on Google and search "Jerry Sandusky grand jury" to see exactly why Paterno is doomed. Its not even that hard to communicate:

    1) Grad assistant reports to Paterno that he witnesses an excruciatingly heinous act of sodomy in the gym shower
    2) Paterno passes the information up the chain of command
    3) The chain does nothing; seven years later Sandusky is arraigned on an unrelated incident; in the investigation of which Penn State officials lie about the nature of what the assistant reported in 2002.

    Which leaves us with, for Paterno: an assistant reported witnessing the most heinous act imaginable perpetrated on a 10-year-old victim, Paterno passed it up, his superiors did nothing, and Paterno was satisfied enough with that (at least) not to press the matter further.

    Paterno is finished and sooner or later his name will live in infamy. Its not hard to figure out why, if you bother to, you know, read source material instead of breathlessly repeating memes.


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