Thursday, November 19, 2020

Notes on Undervotes

Johnson County Numbers Part 3

Despite having the best numbers in the district by 14% above any other county, and with the recount still in progress, Johnson County is getting blamed for Rita Hart's heartbreakingly close (47 votes prior to to the ongoing recount) apparent loss.

Two items have been noted: 1) That Johnson was the only county in the district where Hart ran behind Joe Biden and 2) the under votes in the congressional race.

I've already explained most of the presidential vote-shifting pattern in prior posts:

  • While Donald Trump gained percentage points in other Iowa counties over 2016, he pulled an almost identical share in Johnson County, dropping 0.01%. 
  • We had ballpark of 1000 Never Trump Republican votes
  • Joe Biden's percentage gains here were due to 3/4 of the 2016 third party and write in vote shifting his way.

I've waited on voters for 23 years and there are a certain number who loudly proclaim "I only want to vote for president." And as hard as it is for activists to comprehend, folks have got a right to do that. Many, many more ask with a slight embarrassment "do I have to vote for everything?" or "if I skip some races does My Vote still count?" with "My Vote" clearly meaning "For President." Other voters feel, in all good conscience, that they don't want to vote in races they know little about. This pattern is strongest in campus precincts and in our trailer court dominated precincts.

In general, the lower on the ballot you go, the fewer votes you see. I've been a down ballot candidate in a presidential year, and it is next to impossible, even for a major leaguer like a US Senator, to break through the noise of a presidential race. Square or cube that when you have an attention hound like Donald Trump in the mix.

But in a race this close, you need the Johnson County numbers - that's why you're reading this, right? Just exactly how many people are skipping contests here in the People's Republic? Let's look back at the last four presidential cycles. (For statistical purposes I'm including the much less common over-votes, where voters mark more than one target and cancel themselves out, in with the under votes. Either way, it's a vote not cast in the race.)

I've chosen six races: first, the three federal races (there was no 2012 Senate contest). I chose sheriff as an example of an uncontested county-wide one party contest in all four cycles (auditor had a Democrat vs. independent contest in 2008). Last, I looked at the first and last judicial retention vote each year. That was not always the bottom of the ballot due to public measures, but those higher profile contests tend to break the pattern and draw more votes.

What we see is a clear pattern that consistently repeats itself, with minor variation, over the years.

Votes Cast 2008 2012 2016 2020
Total Voters 73,231 76,199 77,476 84,198
President 72,989 75,977 76,940 83,851
Senate 70,413 - 74,833 82,633
US Rep 69,586 72,518 74,189 80,291
Sheriff 51,966 54,507 59,182 65,180
First Judge 41,929 51,194 50,240 58,878
Last Judge 39,109 47,879 47,827 53,663
Undervotes 2008 2012 2016 2020
President -242 -222 -536 -347
Senate -2818 - -2643 -1565
US Rep -3645 -3681 -3287 -3907
Sheriff -21,265 -21,692 -18,294 -19,018
First Judge -31,302 -25,005 -27,236 -25,320
Last Judge -34,122 -28,320 -29,649 -30,535
Undervote % 2008 2012 2016 2020
President -0.33% -0.29% -0.69% -0.41%
Senate -3.85% - -3.41% -1.86%
US Rep -4.98% -4.83% -4.24% -4.64%
Sheriff -29.04% -28.47% -23.61% -22.59%
First Judge -42.74% -32.82% -35.15% -30.07%
Last Judge -46.60% -37.17% -38.27% -36.27%

For whatever reason, several hundred people vote in a presidential election and do not vote for president. Some unknown share of this is error, some of it is blank ballots, and some is just the stubbornness of "I don't like either of them." 

(Either? There are generally 8 to 10 presidential candidates listed on Iowa's ballot, covering every niche from tankie to militia. Although this year, for the first time since 1956, we had no candidate on the ballot with the word "Socialist" in their party - since of course Joe Biden was the Socialist in the race 🤣) 

Note that the presidential under vote is highest in 2016, when both Trump and Clinton had high negatives; that year also saw by far the highest write-in vote for president at nearly 1000.

There's also some number of people who skip races where their party has no candidate, which is common in the Democrat-dominated courthouse races in Johnson County. The sheriff under vote looks slightly higher in 2008 and 2012, where Obama may have drawn more president-only voters who skipped the courthouse contests. The under vote is down a bit in 2020, as the seat was open and Democratic nominee Brad Kunkel had won a high profile primary campaign. In contrast, predecessor Lonny Pulkrabek had no opposition at all the previous three cycles, after winning a contested primary and general election in 2004.

One thing I see here: the end of straight ticket voting after 2016 does not seem to have had as big an impact as expected. People who were partisan enough to mark that straight ticket target, and it was close to a third of all Johnson County voters, are now just as inclined to work their way down the ballot and mark every contest. So eliminating the straight ticket merely serves as punishment for people who have physical difficulty marking the ballot.

You see a definite change in judicial voting patterns after the 2010 defeat of three supreme court justices who backed the marriage equality ruling. Under votes dropped from nearly half to closer to a third. Anecdotally, I hear many more voters saying they want to wait to return mailed ballots so they can "study" (read: "party ID") "the judges."

So that covers the low profile down ballot contests. Let's bounce back up to the top. 

The 2008 Senate race between Tom Harkin and Some Dude Christopher Reed saw a slightly higher under vote because it was seen as non-competitive. The 2016 Grassley-Judge race was not very competitive either, but Patty Judge was at least a well known former statewide official, and Johnson County was the one county she won.

But we see a definite drop in under votes in the Senate race this year. For a brief moment this looked like the pivotal Senate race for control, and Ernst and Greenfield dominated airwaves for months. In the end, all the money pushed maybe a couple thousand more people in our county to mark that race.

The open seat 2nd CD race is high profile NOW, now that it's the closest congressional race in the nation since 1994. But on the October airwaves, it was just a little less prominent than Ernst-Greenfield, and, crucially, it saw just a little less interest.

But that's normal.

What we see looking back over four presidential cycles is a remarkable consistency. In three cycles the under vote lands in a very narrow range between 4.64% and 4.98%. The fourth cycle, 2016, is barely an outlier at 4.24%. 

My theory there is that Christopher Peters, the 2016 libertarian-identified Republican challenger, picked up some Libertarian presidential voters who were under-voters in the other three cycles. In 2008, 2012 and 2020 the Republicans were seen as more mainstream, and there was no big-L Libertarian on the ballot in any of these four US House contests. Generally the Iowa Libertarians have a Senate candidate (alive or dead) and that explains part of the drop from Senate to US House over the years. Other third parties, in contrast, usually contest just the presidential race.

In short, Johnson County voted in the congressional race pretty much the same as it has for some time, with 4 to 5% of voters skipping the race. The professionals working this race would or should have seen these past patterns and accounted for them. I'm not sure what more could have been done to lower that under vote to the Senate race level, other than throwing several tens of millions more at us like Greenfield and Ernst and every interest group in the country did.

So if you're blaming the county that voted 13 to 14 points better for the Democrat in all the top three races than any other county in the state, like we do every cycle, you're throwing the blame in the wrong direction.

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