Analysis 3.3: Why Massachusetts Will Break 2008’s Voter Turnout Record
by Avi Green
In 2008, Massachusetts set an all-time voter turnout record. 3.1 million people cast ballots. There has been substantial discussion about whether or not 2012 turnout will reach 2008 levels. With Election Day less than a week away, several data points indicate that 2012 turnout will actually substantially exceed 2008.
MassVOTE predicts that approximately 3.3 million people will come out to vote, 200,000 more people than in 2008.
Here are the reasons:
2008 was not an aberration, but part of a trend. Voter participation in Massachusetts has been rising steadily, faster than the increase in the state’s population. In presidential races, 2000 turnout was higher than 1996, 2004 higher than 2000, and 2008 higher than 2004. In off-year races as well, turnout has steadily increased, from 1998 to 2002 to 2006 to 2010.
2008 did not have a hot, close, statewide race of national importance. 2012 does. In 2008, US Senator John Kerry easily defeated a little-known Republican candidate (Jeff Beatty). Mr. Kerry got over 2 million votes, Mr. Beatty got less than 1 million. The race was neither competitive nor nationally significant. Neither candidate spent much money. There was little media coverage. The 2012 campaign between incumbent Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren could not be more different. The Brown-Warren race has seesawed back and forth in the polls, and brought nationwide attention. Both candidates have national prominence in their parties. The race is very significant, indeed, if Republicans do well in other states, the race may determine control of the US Senate. In 2008, there was no race in which a Massachusetts voter could reasonably think, “My vote could have a major impact on the direction of the nation.” In 2012, there is.
Warren and Brown are fighting for votes everywhere in Massachusetts. They have spent an unprecedented amount of money, some $70 million. A substantial amount of their funds will go to getting out the vote. Brown’s website lists 10 field offices throughout the state. Warren’s lists 50. Compared to 2008, these are enormous increases in Get-Out-The-Vote efforts.
In 2008, as in most presidential election years, large numbers of activists and elected officials from both parties left Massachusetts in the weeks before the election to campaign in swing states. The Brown-Warren race has significantly reduced the quadrennial activist exodus. Politicos are staying here to mobilize voters.
2010 showed Deval Patrick’s continuing ability to turnout votes. 2012 may show Barack Obama’s. In 2010, Governor Deval Patrick was running for re-election in sluggish economy. Many pundits predicted that 2010’s turnout would be less than 2006, when Mr. Patrick was as a running a historic campaign to become the first Black governor in Massachusetts. If there was any reduction in excitement, it was made up for by increased organization. 2010 saw higher turnout than 2006. Today, some pundits argue that Mr. Obama will be unable to reproduce the turnout of 2008. They may be wrong again, just as they were in 2010.
2011’s redistricting increased competitive races and down-ballot activity. In 2008, there were exactly zero competitive general election races for US Congress in Massachusetts. This year there are two: Congressman John Tierney’s fight with challenger Richard Tisei; and Joe Kennedy and Sean Bielat’s battle for the seat vacated by Congressman Barney Frank. Redistricting upended Mr. Frank’s district, and the need to campaign vigorously to introduce himself to hundreds of thousands of new constituents was almost certainly a factor in Mr. Frank’s decision not to run. Likewise, new territory in the North Shore district has probably increased the competitiveness of the Tierney-Tisei fight. Down the ballot, many candidates for State Senate and State Representative (even some who are uncontested) are contacting more voters than in 2008, because they want to introduce themselves to new constituents brought into their districts by redistricting.
Both campaigns and nonpartisan voter engagement drives are more sophisticated and effective. As amply documented in Sasha Issenberg’s book, “The Victory Lab,” over the past few years, there has been explosion of data-driven analysis to determine how best to get out the vote. As a result, campaigns on both sides of the aisle and nonpartisan civic engagement efforts are all significantly more effective. The best old-school techniques, like door to door canvassing, have been updated and improved. For example, many door to door volunteers will now tell voters that official records show who votes and who does not, and sometimes even provide them with a voting report card (a document showing which elections they voted in) based on state records. Canvassers ask voters to make specific plans to vote, choosing their time of day and means of transportation to the polls. These improvements dramatically increase the likelihood that contacted voters will actually vote.
2012 has seen more widely available Voter Registration forms. For years, Massachusetts has lagged behind other states in voter registration, and that is still the case. This year, there was a small improvement, when the Commonwealth’s Election Division moved to make voter registration forms available online in English, Spanish, and Chinese. 47 states had already done so, but Massachusetts’ move, while late, is still welcome and will result in more people voting. Outside of government, organizations like Rock the Vote, TurboVote, my own organization, MassVOTE, and others have increased efforts to provide voter registration forms to all who need them.
Put together, all these factors lead to the strong likelihood of higher turnout. MassVOTE predicts that 3.3 million people will cast ballots. While this increase is good news, there are plenty of ways that our state could have seen boosted turnout closer to 4 million, and in a future analysis, we will examine those. For now, see you at the polls. You’ll be in good company.