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Posted 06.24.05

Voter Turnout Does Not Affect Election Outcomes, MU Researcher Finds

COLUMBIA, MO -- It is a conventional belief that increased turnout in elections helps Democratic candidates, and some academic research supports that proposition. A growing number of studies, however, including one by MU political science Professor John Petrocik, shows this is not necessarily the case. Petrocik found increased voter turnout does not consistently benefit either party, but ultimately reinforces the opinion of the majority.

The logic behind the idea that increased voter turnout helps Democrats is not unfounded, Petrocik said. Increased voter turnout means people who are typically nonvoters are casting ballots, and nonvoters typically fit the Democratic profile.

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"Nonvoters are disproportionately Democratic identifiers," Petrocik said. "Nonvoters have fewer years of formal education and lower incomes, belong to ethnic minorities, are younger and, in general, display social characteristics commonly associated with support for Democratic candidates."

Petrocik analyzed voter turnout in U.S. House of Representative elections between 1972 and 2000, and found that nonvoters did not sway the outcome of the election because they usually voted for the same party as the majority of consistent voters.

"Whether the election is lopsided or close, a two-party struggle, or one with a significant third candidate, nonvoters expressed the same candidate preference as voters--and sometimes a bit more so," Petrocik said. "A 100 percent turnout rate would have produced the same winner, at either the same or a slightly greater margin."

Typical nonvoters are motivated to cast ballots because of short term factors, Petrocik said. These factors, such as media hype surrounding campaigns, policy disputes, notable events or excessive candidate enthusiasm, are not party-specific. As a result, when nonvoters do take part in an election, they will not favor a specific party, but the candidate that is already favored among voters.

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