Election Day Registration: Sadly, we told you so.

Like the rest of the U.S., Connecticut had low turn out in the November 2014 mid-terms.  Much better than the national average.  It is always hard to judge the cause of turnout differences in a single election.  But one thing is clear, Election Day Registration (EDR) has failed to meet the expectations of its proponents – unfortunately results were more in line with our predictions.

According to PEW, <read>

Citizens showed up to vote at lower rates than in any federal election since the middle of World War II. Preliminary data indicate that national turnout was below 37 percent. That means nearly 2 in 3 eligible voters, or approximately 144 million American citizens—more than the population of Russia—chose to sit this election out. The nation hasn’t seen turnout this low in any federal general election since 1942. Even in recent midterms, when the turnout was remarkably low, it still exceeded 40 percent, meaning millions more Americans voted in 2006 and 2010 than in 2014.

Examples of the problem can be seen in New Mexico and Nevada, which, despite high-profile statewide races at several levels (governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, etc., as well as a U.S. Senate race in New Mexico), saw their lowest turnouts in a federal election since before 1980. Nevada in particular stands out: Turnout there plummeted to less than 32 percent, a drop of almost 10 percentage points compared with 2010.

According to the Secretary of the State our turnout was dismal, while she was upbeat on the results for EDR: <read>

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill today released the final, comprehensive voter turnout figures from the 2014 general election showing that some 55.57% of registered voters in Connecticut cast ballots on Election Day November 4, 2014…Secretary Merrill is also reporting that some 13,995 new voters in Connecticut were able to cast ballots using Election Day Registration. This number represents 1.3% of the total votes cast in 2014, the first statewide, non-municipal election since Election Day Registration was enacted in Connecticut…

One thing I am very proud of is the large number of new voters – nearly 14,000 – who were able to participate
in democracy due to Election Day Registration! This was a total success and implemented statewide without any serious problems. This speaks volumes about the preparation undertaken by local election officials to accommodate new crowds of voters across the state.

We take little pleasure in pointing out that while we support EDR, we have been pessimistic about the current law and its implementation.  First. because the law requires a slow and arduous process that is more time consuming and less convenient that the process provided by states that are touted as models of  successful EDR results.  Second, because it can disenfranchise some new, inexperienced voters, by not letting them cast their votes into optical scanners, leaving them without the check and second chance when they have overvoted. Finally, we object to the implementation of EDR with procedures that specify that citizens in line at 8:00pm have no right to attempt to register and vote – to us that goes beyond serving the public, to a sad civil rights violation, just waiting to be challenged in court (hopefully before it could put an election result in jeopardy). For our many posts describing the real and potential problems see <here>.

We know that that EDR could do so much more if it was done as those other states do it.  We are not cheering so loudly as Secretary Merrill.  In fact, EDR fell far short of one of her two contradictory predictions a couple of years ago  EDR – Proponents cannot have it both ways <read, view> As we and the Secretary said at the time:

In this interview the Secretary claims early on (8:25 in the video) that states recently implementing EDR have a 10% increase in turnout, but then later finds it hard to accept John [Hartwell]’s example of 10% of voters in Westport using EDR (21:20) as “assuming a very large number”. Contrary to the Secretary’s contention that “it is all done by computer”, registering someone who is registered elsewhere in Connecticut involves calling a registrars office, that office calling a polling place, and then responding back to make sure the voter had not previously voted.

It is correct that testing in a low turnout election (2013) would be a good time to roll out the system. However, that can also generate a false sense of confidence, with a huge turnout and huge EDR turnout in a later more popular election (2014 or 2016).

One last thing we sadly got right was the potential for voters left in the line at 8:00pm in New Haven, 100 Voters Turned Away In EDR Crush<read>

Officials anticipated around 200 people coming to City Hall for Election Day Registration (EDR), based on last year’s turnout. Surprise: More than three times that amount showed up over the course of Election Day, overwhelming staffers and leaving some people waiting up to two hours to cast a ballot.

When the polls closed at 8 p.m., those in line who had completed the registration process were allowed to vote, but under state law moderators had turn the other 100 or so people away without a ballot. Six hundred nineteen people got to register and vote. (The official number was being tallied late Tuesday night.)

We did get one thing wrong, it did not take until a really popular election.  As we said earlier, we disagree that “under state law moderators had [to] turn the other 100 or so people away”, it is a procedural limitation, likely unenforceable and, part of the law or not, contestable as a civil rights violation.

Just to be complete, we also would debate the claim that everyone who used EDR was a “new voter”.  The figures include those who regularly vote, had not moved, and were mysteriously thrown off the rolls.  (Given my experience running EDR in my town, that could represent 5% to 10% of the EDR voters. Not to mention the many new voters who thought they had registered with the online system, only to find at their polling that they had not.  Both categories of citizens had to go from their polling places to wait in line at our EDR location. As I mentioned to to Secretary of the State, Peggy Reeves “It is great that EDR is there to make up for such errors, the registration system still needs to be fixed to avoid those problems”.

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