New research on voting machine availability and voter turnout in Ohio

There is a paper by Ben Highton (UC-Davis) that is forthcoming in a political science journal (PS), “Long Lines, Voting Machine Availability, and Turnout: The Case of Franklin County, Ohio in the 2004 Presidential Election.” Highton is a well-known scholar who has produced a series of good studies of a variety of issues associated with voter turnout.

Highton uses precinct-level data from Franklin County, Ohio, and undertakes a series of different statistical analyses to estimate the effect of availability of voting machines in precincts on 2004 voter turnout. There are some minor methodoligical quibbles here, in particular whether it is appropriate to model this as using a linaer model and what other specifications of the turnout model (especially including other control variables) might yield. But I doubt these methodological quibbles would have much of an effect on Highton’s major conclusions from his analysis.

Highton’s basic conclusion is:

The strong association between the availability of voting machines and turnout in Franklin County, Ohio in the 2004 presidential election was largely the result of factors unrelated to the causal effect of the availability of voting machines on turnout. That said, after controlling for other causes of turnout, the relationship does not disappear, suggesting that machine scarcity was a cause of lower turnout. The magnitude of the effect in terms of votes was about 22,000, which would have diminished George W. Bush’s statewide margin by about 6,000 had there been no scarcity of voting machines on Election Day. Thus long lines at polling places in Franklin County do not appear to have cost John Kerry the presidential election, but they do appear to have cost him votes.

Given that the Franklin County Board of Elections, like all Ohio county election boards, has four members, two Democrats and two Republicans, attributing the scarcity of voting machines and its consequent effects to partisan maneuvering is probably not warranted.

This is a nice contribution to research on voting machine availability. It would be important to replicate this analysis elsewhere throughout the nation to determine how precinct voting machine availability impacts voter participation — and other outcome variables like residual votes — in other jurisdictions.

Thanks to Doug Chapin of Electionline for pointing out that Highton’s study is now available in electronic format.