Research on Voting Patterns Can Inform Election Planning

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Extensive research has determined that voting is habit forming: Once people start voting, they are more likely to continue doing so throughout their lives. At the 2014 Midwest Political Science Association conference, researchers Robert Stein and Andrew Menger presented a new study that examined whether the mode of voting—early or on Election Day—is also habit forming.

The researchers used a database of the frequency and mode of voting for 1.23 million registered voters from Harris County, Texas, for federal elections from 2004 to 2012. They found that 73 percent of voters changed modes between 2004 and 2006, but the rate decreased over time, declining to just 27 percent of voters between 2010 and 2012.

This change follows a predictable pattern: Greater proportions of voters cast early ballots during presidential elections and on Election Day during midterms. Between the 2006 midterm and the 2008 presidential elections, less than 5 percent of voters changed from early voting to voting on Election Day, but more than 40 percent changed from Election Day to early voting. The authors believe this pattern is the result of candidates strategically focusing “get out the vote” efforts on core supporters—who are likely to be frequent voters—during the early voting period.

Despite the changes, the authors found some evidence of habituation, meaning individuals are more likely to use the same mode of voting in consecutive elections.

Future research on this topic will be important to election administrators, who must estimate the level of participation before and on Election Day in order to allocate machines, ballots, staff, and supplies to the correct locations at the right times.

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