Tuesday, August 12, 2014

TURNOUT ANALYSIS: What's Really Going On? // Maryland Juice Dissects Voter Turnout in the June 2014 Primary Elections

UPDATEWhen I first went live with the post below, I didn't have complete numbers of independent voters in each Maryland county. We've now updated the post with these figures (Hat-tip to Maryland Reporter's Len Lazarick for pointing us in the right direction), along with an explanation of how counties without nonpartisan primaries have inflated turnout percentages. I've also added some information on counties where independent voters are outpacing Republicans. Scroll down for these updates below.

THE FUTURE OF MARYLAND JUICE: Alrighty folks, after months of absence, Maryland Juice is back in action! Before I kick-off a lengthy article about voter turnout in Maryland, I thought I'd take a second to discuss some changes that this blog will be pursuing in the coming months.

In case you haven't heard, I won my Democratic Primary election for the House of Delegates, and that means that by the time the legislative session starts in January 2015, I'll have to step back from my writing duties. But not to worry -- over the course of the next few months, I hope to introduce a new set of writers who will keep the Juice torch and information pipeline burning into the future. In 2015, I  may still write an article here or there, but likely not with the vigor and frequency you've become accustomed to (for various obvious reasons). In any case, keep your eyes open as we roll out new Juicers in 2014! Now onto my first article in over three months....

MARYLAND JUICE 2014 PRIMARY ELECTION TURNOUT ANALYSIS - Numerous political pundits have fretted about Maryland's declining voter turnout, especially in Democratic strongholds like Montgomery County. The Washington Post's Bill Turque commented (excerpt below):
WASHINGTON POST: There’s been much opining among Montgomery’s elected officials about the anemic primary turnout last month, when just 16 percent of registered voters came to the polls. They cited, among other factors, the inconvenience of the new June 24 election date, the lack of urgent issues, and a less-than compelling primary race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination at the top of the ballot....
Turque's article was triggered by a feisty piece from Center Maryland columnist and Montgomery County resident Josh Kurtz (excerpt below):
CENTER MARYLAND: At presidential election time, voter turnout in Montgomery County is pretty decent: Almost three-quarters of enrolled voters showed up at the polls on Election Day 2012 to choose between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney....  But when it comes to acting locally, when it comes to selecting their leaders at the state and county levels, Montgomery County residents fail miserably.

In the recent statewide primary, just 16 percent of registered voters in Montgomery County bothered to vote. Sixteen percent!.... That’s lower voter turnout than in Garrett County (27 percent), where cousins marry, or in Somerset County (24 percent), where the raging issue is chicken waste, or in Baltimore city (22 percent), where they’re selling drugs on every street corner, or in Prince George’s County (18 percent), where every public official has a palm extended.....
But to accurately build a solution to the problem of "low turnout," it helps to understand what's really going on.  Indeed, rushed analyses have led some to hastily conclude that recent voting reforms like early voting were "unsuccessful" and that we are in some sort of existential crisis in Maryland with respect to civic engagement. However, many variables impacting voter turnout (eg: demographic changes, resident turnover, and the national mood) are out of state and local policymakers' control. Below are a few points to consider about turnout trends in Maryland and Montgomery County.

RAW DEMOCRATIC PARTY ELECTION DAY TURNOUT BY COUNTY: First, not all voters are the same. Turnout in Maryland varied wildly depending on your party registration, and all is not what it seems. In terms of raw Democratic Party turnout, simply more Democrats from Montgomery County voted at the polls on election day than Democrats from any other county:

Montgomery DEM 68,179
Prince George's DEM 64,982
Baltimore County DEM 59,980
Baltimore City DEM 51,730
Anne Arundel DEM 24,655
Howard DEM 19,193
Charles DEM 12,314
Harford DEM 11,795
Frederick DEM 11,201
Carroll DEM 6,306
Calvert DEM 4,451
Washington DEM 4,433
Saint Mary's DEM 4,023
Cecil DEM 3,508
Wicomico DEM 3,349
Allegany DEM 2,748
Queen Anne's DEM 2,303
Worcester DEM 2,173
Dorchester DEM 1,952
Talbot DEM 1,888
Kent DEM 1,299
Caroline DEM 1,018
Somerset DEM 919
Garrett DEM 790

If you include early voters, Montgomery County was second place in Maryland for raw Democratic turnout - Prince George's was first, Baltimore County was third, and Baltimore City was fourth.

% OF ELIGIBLE DEMOCRATIC TURNOUT BY PARTY - One caveat to MoCo's large Democratic turnout should be noted. Even though more MoCo Dems turned out than Dems around the state, Montgomery County's turnout ranking does indeed drop when looking at the percentage of eligible Democrats who participated (as opposed to the absolute number of Democrats who voted).

But even still, in terms of the percentage of Democrats turning out for the primary election, Montgomery County was in a respectable 8th place out of 24 counties (including early voters). Of the large jurisdictions, only Baltimore County Democrats turned out at a rate higher than Montgomery. Prince George's was in 14th place, and Baltimore City was in 17th place:

Kent DEM 30.22%
Queen Anne's DEM 28.68%
Howard DEM 27.77%
Talbot DEM 26.94%
Baltimore County DEM 26.51%
Charles DEM 26.18%
Frederick DEM 25.05%
Montgomery DEM 23.90%
Harford DEM 23.77%
Carroll DEM 23.55%
Calvert DEM 23.08%
Dorchester DEM 22.90%
Anne Arundel DEM 22.85%
Baltimore City DEM 22.75%
Garrett DEM 20.79%
Allegany DEM 19.90%
Prince George's DEM 19.46%
Cecil DEM 19.02%
Saint Mary's DEM 18.96%
Worcester DEM 18.49%
Caroline DEM 18.44%
Somerset DEM 17.70%
Wicomico DEM 16.82%
Washington DEM 15.80%

MOCO'S POPULATION SURGE DISTORTS ITS TURNOUT PERCENTAGES: In other words, MoCo's sheer size of population means that we have among the most Democrats who vote in Maryland, but we also have a large number of MoCo Democrats who do not vote, thereby bringing down Montgomery County's turnout percentages. Why might this be?

MoCo Democrat Paul Bessel recently launched a new blog where he delved into some of these turnout dynamics. One of the facts he pointed out is that Montgomery County has had a huge surge in Democratic voter registrations over the last 14 years. Based on his graph below, MoCo had about 230,000 Democrats in 2000 compared with about 355,000 in 2014:

NUMBER OF MOCO DEMOCRATS VOTING BASICALLY UNCHANGED IN OVER 2 DECADES - MoCo Democrats have basically voted in equal numbers over the last couple decades, even while our turnout rate has dropped. How can that be? Some historical Democratic turnout numbers provided by Jonathan Shurberg provide some insight.

Here is one telling comparison. In 1990, roughly 86,000 MoCo Democrats voted out of 195,000. In 2014, roughly 84,000 MoCo Democrats voted. So the raw turnout is almost the same, but today there are 354,000 Democrats on the rolls in Montgomery County.

Montgomery County Democratic Turnout (Gubernatorial Primary Years)
  • 1990: 86,167 turnout out of 195,523 registered Dems (44.07%)
  • 1994: 89,452 turnout out of 217,007 registered Dems (41.22%)
  • 1998: 75,485 turnout out of 227,863 registered Dems (33.13%)
  • 2002: 110,518 turnout out of 246,779 registered Dems (44.78%)
  • 2006: 108,337 turnout out of 271,008 registered Dems (39.98%)
  • 2010: 83,827 turnout out of 321,759 registered Dems (26.05%)
  • 2014: 84,622 turnout out of 354,078 registered Dems (23.90%)
It is worth noting that the two election cycles with unusually high turnout for MoCo Democrats both occurred during the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era (2002-2006). Extrapolate what you will from that data point.

A PROBLEM FOR THE NEW MONTGOMERY COUNTY DEMOCRATIC CENTRAL COMMITTEE - What all of this tells me is that as MoCo's population has surged over the last couple decades, we have likely failed to engage all of the new Democratic registrants that have chosen to reside here.  MoCo's Democratic turnout stayed the same over 24 years even though we added over 150,000 new Democrats to the voter rolls (almost twice as many as vote in Primaries).

Indeed, the vast majority of candidates seeking office in Montgomery County (and everywhere else) spend most of their resources contacting voters with a demonstrated history of voting in Democratic Primaries (aka the decisive elections). As a result, save for the occasional nonprofit voter mobilization drive, there is really nobody trying to pump primary turnout by engaging new registrants and less likely voters in primaries. This seems like a challenge for MoCo's new Democratic Central Committee (MCDCC) to tackle. After all, we are living in a new world in Maryland politics, where literally zero Republicans hold elected office in Montgomery County. It seems sensible that the MCDCC should shift its activities to meet the evolving needs of our county's politics.

SO WHY DOES MOCO HAVE THE OVERALL LOWEST VOTER TURNOUT RATE IN MARYLAND? - Okay, so now that we've got the Democratic turnout analysis out of the way, it still remains true that MoCo had terrible turnout when looking at voters from all parties. When you look at turnout figures from voters of all parties and unaffiliated voters, Montgomery County had the lowest turnout percentage in all of Maryland but we still had the second highest number of actual voters in the state this year. See these tables of overall voter turnout from all parties below:

  1. Talbot - 35.22%
  2. Kent - 30.60%
  3. Dorchester - 29.00% 
  4. Queen Anne's - 28.33%
  5. Garrett - 26.62%
  6. Baltimore County - 24.68% 
  7. Carroll - 24.53%
  8. Somerset - 24.43%
  9. Anne Arundel - 24.25%
  10. Caroline - 24.19%
  11. Cecil - 23.60%
  12. Frederick - 23.34%
  13. Baltimore City - 21.65%
  14. Charles - 21.47%
  15. Harford - 21.26%
  16. Wicomico - 20.24%
  17. Worcester - 20.21%
  18. Allegany - 19.95%
  19. Calvert - 19.24%
  20. Prince George's - 18.00%
  21. Saint Mary's - 16.77%
  22. Washington - 16.54%
  23. Montgomery - 16.34%

  1. Baltimore County - 105,171
  2. Montgomery - 103,000
  3. Prince George's - 91,782
  4. Baltimore City - 70,508
  5. Anne Arundel - 65,396
  6. Howard - 38,946
  7. Frederick - 34,872
  8. Harford - 33,773
  9. Carroll - 28,049
  10. Charles - 21,441
  11. Washington - 14,765
  12. Calvert - 11,571
  13. Cecil - 11,258
  14. Saint Mary's - 10,773
  15. Wicomico - 9,495
  16. Queen Anne's - 9,297
  17. Allegany - 8,460
  18. Talbot - 7,714
  19. Worcester - 6,424
  20. Dorchester - 5,138
  21. Garrett - 5,102
  22. Caroline - 3,625
  23. Kent - 3,257
  24. Somerset - 2,803

UPDATED: UNAFFILIATED VOTERS DRIVE DOWN TOTAL TURNOUT PERCENTAGES - Maryland Juice would point readers to some fairly obvious facts that may explain why MoCo had overall turnout of 16%, even while MoCo Democrats turned out at nearly 24%. First, Montgomery County now has 147,000 voters who are not registered with any party. Since Maryland Democrats and Republicans have closed primaries (meaning only registered party members can vote), independent voters have very little reason to turnout for primary elections. Indeed, in MoCo only 2.59% of unaffiliated voters participated in the June 2014 primary election.

Moreover, as Maryland Reporter's Len Lazarick pointed out to me, multiple counties have no races where independents are eligible to vote in primaries. Montgomery County, for example, has nonpartisan school board races, while other counties do not. As a result, counties without nonpartisan races will appear to have higher voter turnout percentages than the rest (where anemic turnout from independents drags down the countywide participation rates). The counties without nonpartisan primaries are: Anne Arundel, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Caroline, Cecil, Dorchester, Kent, Somerset, and Wicomico.

What's more, MoCo has a much larger number of independent voters than many other Democratic strongholds, according to the Board of Elections stats as of May 2014. Indeed, there are now more MoCo independents (147,904) than Republicans (122,349). Below you can see the numbers of unaffiliated voters in each county:

  1. Montgomery - 147,904
  2. Baltimore County - 83,015
  3. Anne Arundel - 74,718
  4. Prince George's - 60,039
  5. Baltimore City - 46,313
  6. Howard - 43,623
  7. Frederick - 33,625
  8. Harford - 30,505
  9. Carroll - 21,560
  10. Washington - 17,854
  11. Charles - 16,399
  12. Cecil - 13,249
  13. Saint Mary's - 12,767
  14. Calvert - 12,012
  15. Wicomico - 10,342
  16. Worcester - 6,545
  17. Allegany - 6,428
  18. Queen Anne's - 5,906
  19. Talbot - 4,451
  20. Caroline - 3,427
  21. Dorchester - 2,715
  22. Garrett - 2,311
  23. Kent - 1,918
  24. Somerset - 1,718
It should be obvious that if Montgomery County has significantly more independent voters than other counties, and these voters cannot vote in most races in primary elections, these voters will not turnout (as demonstrated by their 2.59% turnout rate). This clearly drags down MoCo's statewide ranking for voter turnout.

VOTER TURNOUT AND REGISTRATION DECLINES SPELL TROUBLE FOR THE MARYLAND GOP - But more importantly, these numbers raise the question about who these independent voters are. Are they disaffected Republicans (aka would-be moderate Republicans who have no home in today's Republican Party)? It is stunning that indies outnumber the GOP in Montgomery County, but then again the era of moderate Republican officials like Connie Morella is now long-gone, mirroring a national trend of partisan realignment.

That the Maryland GOP cannot energize its voters in the vote-rich Democratic strongholds is not a theory, it is fact. Look at the percentage of Maryland Republicans who voted in the June Primaries:


County Party Turnout
Talbot REP 44.06%
Dorchester REP 37.76%
Queen Anne's REP 37.46%
Somerset REP 34.00%
Garrett REP 33.53%
Carroll REP 32.80%
Frederick REP 31.84%
Kent REP 31.09%
Caroline REP 29.43%
Cecil REP 27.93%
Harford REP 26.15%
Anne Arundel REP 25.92%
Allegany REP 25.57%
Wicomico REP 24.50%
Worcester REP 24.46%
Calvert REP 23.51%
Washington REP 23.46%
Saint Mary's REP 21.93%
Baltimore County REP 20.55%
Charles REP 20.43%
Howard REP 19.22%
Montgomery REP 11.74%
Prince George's REP 11.23%
Baltimore City REP 11.00%

UPDATED: THE MARYLAND GOP IS A REGIONAL PARTY - In places like Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore City, barely 1 in 10 registered Republicans decided to participate in contested Republican Primary Elections. Furthermore, in all three of those jurisdictions, independents outnumber Republicans:
  • Montgomery - 147,904 independents vs. 122,349 Republican
  • Baltimore City - 46,313 independents vs. 30,325 Republicans
  • Prince George's - 60,039 independents vs. 43,636 Republicans
Interestingly, in democratic-trending Howard County, independents are beginning to approach the same strength as the GOP. This does not bode well for the strength of the Republican electorate in the long-term:
  • Howard - 46,623 independents vs. 56,696 Republicans
Given what a large share of votes these counties represent, it seems clear that the Maryland GOP continues on the path of becoming a regional party. But these anemic GOP turnout levels are making us all look bad, since they bring down the overall turnout percentages for our counties.

The obvious solution for the Maryland GOP is to hold open primaries and allow independents to vote -- especially since indies now outnumber MoCo Republicans. But I'm not holding my breath for that.

PRIMARY TURNOUT IS DECLINING NATIONALLY - In the meantime, I would add just one more piece of data for folks to consider. And that is that the hand-wringing over low voter turnout is nothing unique to Maryland. It is happening nationally.  USA Today recently posted a graph of declining party primary turnout across the nation (courtesy of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate):

So take a deep breath, folks. There is much more going on with voter turnout both nationally, regionally, and locally than has really been discussed in many of the news articles I've read recently. I'll be back with a JuiceBlender before too long.  Thanks for sticking around!

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