November 4, 2016
You may already be aware of this, but Election Day is right around the corner. And although there are a lot of polarizing issues under discussion this season, we can all at least agree that we love statistics. (Right? Right?!) So here’s the rundown on voter participation rate statistics, how they’re calculated, and where to find them.
Compared Voter Participation Methods
Voter participation statistics can be calculated in two different ways, but both center on comparing the number of ballots cast with a larger population.
For bonus points, using the same data needed for these calculations, you can also work out the voter registration rate by comparing the number of registered voters with the population that is eligible to vote.
Method 1: Compares the number of ballots cast with the total population that is eligible to vote
Voter Participation Rate (%) = (Number of Ballots Cast)/(Eligible Population) x 100
Method 2: Compares the number of ballots cast with the number of registered voters.
Voter Participation Rate (%) = (Number of Ballots Cast)/Registered Voters) x 100
Both methods are in use, and both are sometimes referred to as “voter participation rate,” so it’s good to be familiar with both. And neither method is categorically better than the other one. All this also makes it important, when you’re reading voter turnout analyses, to check how they’re doing their calculations. As an example of how the two different methods return different results, let’s take a look at some Champaign County data from past elections.
Sources: Champaign County Clerk Election History, Illinois State Board of Elections Publications (Vote Totals), U.S. Census Bureau; American Community Survey, 2006 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Table B05003; generated by CCRPC staff; using American FactFinder; (15 March 2016), U.S. Census Bureau; American Community Survey, 2008 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Table B05003; generated by CCRPC staff; using American FactFinder; (15 March 2016), U.S. Census Bureau; American Community Survey, 2010 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Table B05003; generated by CCRPC staff; using American FactFinder; (15 March 2016), U.S. Census Bureau; American Community Survey, 2012 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Table B05003; generated by CCRPC staff; using American FactFinder; (15 March 2016), U.S. Census Bureau; American Community Survey, 2014 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Table B05003; generated by CCRPC staff; using American FactFinder; (15 March 2016).
As you can see in the tables above, comparing ballots cast with the eligible population will almost invariably return a lower participation rate than comparing ballots cast with the number of registered voters. The only exception is in cases of complete voter registration saturation, where every person that is eligible to vote is registered to vote: in that case, the participation rate figures would be equal. Either method is viable and neither is the preferable option across the board, but it’s important to know which one is being used for the analysis you’re reading: ask the right questions, and your interpretation of the data will be sounder than assuming one method or the other. (This is a good rule to go by in most data analysis situations: read the methodology, be a more informed data consumer.) Also, if you’re calculating or compiling voter participation rate statistics for a study or a project that you’re working on, it’s important to check the methodologies and make sure that the different datasets are actually comparable. If the rate in one state was calculated with Method 1, and the rate in another state was calculated using Method 2, these two numbers can’t give you an apples to apples comparison: you either need to select new regions to analyze or get the raw data and recalculate the rates yourself, using the same method for every region.
Historic Voter Participation Statistics
If you’re looking for historic voter participation statistics, you can find Champaign County’s on the Champaign County Clerk website. The results available go back to 1968, and many years include results from both primary and general elections, as applicable, so you can go forth and do historical analyses of the county’s voting record to your heart’s content. At the national level, the U.S. Census Bureau produces some voting and registration products based on the Current Population Survey. If you’re looking for data only for a particular state, we recommend starting with that state’s board or department of elections and going from there; for Illinois, that’s the Illinois State Board of Elections, which provides historic election results at the state and county level. And finally, if you’ll excuse a moment of shameless self-promotion, we’ve compiled some historic Champaign County voter turnout data for our Voter Participation indicator.
Champaign County’s voter participation statistics have two staggered release dates. Unofficial statistics will be available on the Champaign County Clerk website after polls close on November 8th. The full reports will be available on the Champaign County Clerk website two weeks after Election Day.
Voter Participation Statistics, Additional Analysis, and Why This Data is Important
If you’re looking for analysis in addition to just the raw numbers, the U.S. Census Bureau has a “Voting and Registration” topics page where you can find the voting and registration products mentioned above, as well as resources like state voting profiles; topical reports; national, state, and regional-level data; and voting data broken down by age, sex, race, ethnicity, marital status, and other demographic dimensions.
Being able to reliably measure and compare voter participation statistics is important for several reasons. Working with this data gives the average data user a thorough grounding in election statistics. The same datasets that provide the raw data for voter participation rate can also include candidate- or party-based breakdowns of the election results, which, depending on what level of geography you’re working with, can provide a county-level view of election results. Finally, comparing the participation and registration rates at the county level, both among counties and from year to year, can provide information on how much of the population in that area is – or isn’t – voting. This can provide insight into concepts that are harder to pin down with data, like civic engagement, and also suggest when and where there might be a need for greater outreach in order to encourage residents of that area to vote or otherwise get involved in the local political process.
This all brings us to our last note before we close out the entry on this topic: read on for the obligatory (but important) public service announcement.
Obligatory Public Service Announcement
To wrap up, we need to take a moment to be serious and encourage you to go out and vote this election season. Early voting is open today, this weekend, and Monday at locations throughout Champaign County, and if you do vote early, you can vote at any open early voting location, instead of only at your assigned polling place. To find early voting locations, check the Early Voting Schedule on the Champaign County Clerk website. To get your personal voter information, including checking your voter registration status and assigned polling place, go to the Voter Information Lookup page on the Champaign County Clerk website. If you’re planning to vote on Election Day but don’t know how you’re going to get to your polling place, CUMTD has you covered: MTD is offering free bus rides on November 8th to help people get out and vote.