Election day voter registration and partisan mobilization efforts

In an intriguing paper presented by Mary Fitzgerald (Harvard University) at the recent APSA conference, “The Triggering Effects of Election Day Registration on Partisan Mobilization Activities in U.S. Elections”, we have some evidence for why voter turnout is consistently greater in the six states currently using election day voter registration. As noted by Fitzgerald, there are a series of published studies that have systematically documented that voter turnout is consistently higher in states employing election day voter registration, a result that Stephen Ansolabehere, Catherine H. Wilson and I have documented as well in our research paper; we estimated that had all states used election day voter registration procedures in the 2000 presidential election “that voter turnout could have increased by 8.1%, from almost 63% to almost 71%.”

Fitzgerald’s innovation is to look at partisan mobilization strategies, in effect comparing these strategies across states using individual-level survey data from the American National Election Study [ANES] (she uses all of the survey data from 1972 through 2002). In the ANES data, a question is systematically asked of respondents as to whether they were contacted by one of the major political parties regarding voting in the upcoming election. In the terminology of social science research, she uses whether or not each survey respondent reported a party contact as the “dependent variable” — what she is trying to explain. She knows whether the respondent is in a state using election day voter registration (and other aspects of the state’s election procedures), and she knows other information about the respondent and their local political context that she can use as “control variables.’

Based on her statistical analysis, Fitzgerald is able to show that respondents in states using election day voter registration were consistently (and statistically!) more likely to report being contacted by a major political party, in both presidential and midterm elections, and by both Democratic and Republican parties. Fitzgerald summarizes her results:

“…EDR increases the estimated likelihood that an individual will be contacted by 12 percentage points in presidential elections, and by 14 percentage points in midterm congressional elections. Interestingly, when comparing the contact efforts of the Democratic and Republican Parties, individuals are slightly more likely to be contacted by the Democratic Party during both presidential and midterm congressional elections.”

But Fitzgerald finds that while the parties do contact a larger number of potential voters in EDR states, the parties are not clearly clearly targeting specific demographic groups in their EDR mobilization efforts (at least given her data).

In recent years, there has been a great deal of interest by social scientists and practitioners in non-partisan “get-out-the-vote” (GOTV) efforts; most significant has been the work of Donald Green and Alan Gerber in this area. Fitzgerald’s work pushes in a different direction, turning attention to how partisan mobilization efforts may be tailored to take advantage of electoral procedures like EDR. To the extent that these partisan mobilization efforts in EDR states have indirect effects on the friends and family members of those contacted to vote, and the efforts can be better targeted in the future at lower-turnout populations, it is also possible that partisan mobilization efforts may have even stronger effects than Fitzgerald finds in her paper.

This is a clever new take on the question of EDR and voter turnout. While I could complain at the margins about some aspects of the statistical model specification (for example, some of the specification and methodological issues raised by my NYU colleague, Jonathan Nagler in his 1991 and 1994 papers on voter turnout might need consideration here) and other methodological issues, I am not sure that those complaints necessarily would alter the central point of this paper. It will be interesting to see how Fitzgerald’s analysis may provoke some new studies of EDR, and perhaps some examination of partisan mobilization efforts.