FWD: C-NEWS: Why 1996 Could Be Another 1948

Dean Fairbrother dean.fairbrother at HBFULLER.COM
Wed Oct 30 07:34:10 MST 1996


--------- Begin forwarded message ----------
From: "William Alexander Roper, Jr." <waroper at pobox.com>
To: c-news at world.std.com
Subject: C-NEWS: Why 1996 Could Be Another 1948
Date: Fri, 25 Oct 1996 21:50:04 -0400
Message-ID: <199610282100.QAA27672 at europe.std.com>

Why 1996 Could Be Another 1948

By William Alexander Roper, Jr.

We have been hearing now for months that President Clinton has a solid,
unassailable lead over Senator Robert Dole.  Countless polls taken by
numerous different reputable pollsters, relying on well established
survey technology all seem to agree - the election is over.  The
conventional wisdom propounded by political pundits, Democratic
spinmeisters and their media mouthpieces is that the public is well
satisfied with President Clinton's performance and that the public is
not overly keen on Dole.

Now I am actually a proponent of survey research technologies and a
champion of the use of statistical techniques to gauge problems.  But I
have come to recently have grave misgivings about the reliability of the
polling figures which are being bandied about this year.  My misgivings
are not based upon some fanciful optimism or a belief that the laws of
probability may be on vacation this cycle, but rather are based upon a
growing realization that the national Motor Voter Act, enacted with
great fanfare in 1993, has introduced some rather enormous
idiosyncrasies, which may be seriously skewing the samples so
assiduously studied by our nation's pollsters.

In order to better understand what may be taking place, it is necessary
to explain several aspects of the Motor Voter law which are not well
known to the general public.  Besides creating the means for
automatically enrolling new voters when they applied for driver's
licenses, public assistance or unemployment benefits, the act also
preempted state laws relating to the removal of voters from the rolls.

One change, championed by liberals throughout the country, prohibited
states from allowing the removal of names based simply upon failure to
vote for one or more elections.

Here in Pennsylvania, our state election law previous to Motor Voter
called for voters to be removed if they failed to vote in five
consecutive elections, including both primaries and general elections.

Accordingly, a voter who failed to go to the polls for two years would
be notified that he or she was subject to removal for failure to vote,
and upon failing to vote in that next (fifth) election, the voter's name
would be dropped from the registration rolls.  Of course, as long as the
voter was otherwise eligible, the voter could simply re-register at any
time (up until thirty days prior to the election).

Another way our state kept its voting rolls tidy was through the use of
occasional "post card purges".  Every now and then, the county election
board could send out post cards to verify the residence of the
registrants.  If a post card was returned by the post office as
undeliverable, the county board could remove the voter's name from the
registration rolls.  Similarly, the county board could remove a name, at
its discretion, based upon convincing evidence which came to its
attention indicating that a registrant was not eligible to register and
vote from a particular address.

Yet a third way names could be removed was upon a petition for removal
formally filed by a voter with the election board.  When an individual
voter learned that an ineligible registrant was registered, he or she
could use this petition procedure to force an election board hearing
(with due notice to the registrant) as to whether a registration should
be removed.  After testimony was taken and proof submitted, the election
board could order a name removed if the evidence so dictated.

In Philadelphia, our local Republican ward committee used this procedure
for over a decade to force the removal of thousands of ineligible
voters, very often fictitious persons or persons registered at parking
lots, garages, fast food establishments and various other assorted
non-residential addresses.  We also used this process to clear the rolls
of those who had simply graduated and moved from the campus area.

The Motor Voter law changed all of that.  Under Motor Voter, the states
were precluded not only from removing the names of persons who had
failed to vote, but also the names of persons who had moved, but failed
to re-register.  Even a person who does re-register may not be removed
if the election board does not learn of the new registration!

Consider the possibilities:  (a) A person moves within a county and
re-registers, but fails to indicate their prior address which is not
required on the application -- The county election board has a pretty
fair chance of catching the duplicate registration,  as long as the
county is not too big and the name is not too common;  (b) A person
moves to another county within a state and re-registers, but fails to
indicate his prior address - The person's name remains on the rolls of
the old jurisdiction, possibly forever; (c) A person moves to another
state and reregisters - Again the person's name is quite likely to
languish on the rolls of the previous jurisdiction.

Now Motor Voter did nothing to make it more difficult for a removal to
take place when a jurisdiction is notified as to a new registration, but
it completely eliminated all of the safety valves which tended to clean
up the rolls over time when a notification did not take place.

Motor Voter did introduce a new element, though.  Now, driver's
licensing bureaus notify local election boards of changes in addresses
which they receive for licensing purposes.  The election boards have, at
least, this small tool to keep things in order.  A similar process can
help identify a move by a recipient of public assistance or unemployment
compensation.

Now consider the implications of these legislative changes in the real
world.  When people move and fail to notify their election boards, their
previous registrations can languish on the rolls, possibly forever.

Their old registrations can no longer be removed based upon evidence of
their move given by the post office (post card removal) or for failure
to vote.  Their names will only come off if (a) they re-register giving
their previous address, though giving such an address is not required,
(b) they were also licensed to drive (or receiving assistance) at the
same address and then changed their address of record, (c) they
personally request that their name be removed.

Allow me to explain what has happened in my ward in Philadelphia.  My
ward is largely composed of the campus of the University of Pennsylvania
and the surrounding residential community of University City.  One of
our election divisions (precincts) consists of a single enormous
residential dormitory called the Quad, which has been dedicated for many
years now to freshman housing.  With the exception of a handful of
residence advisors and faculty fellows in residence, the entire
population of the Quad turns over every year!  As the students enter
their second year at the University, they move to other University
housing or move off campus.  The other wards near campus also experience
high rates of turnover, but the Quad is our definition of transience.

Many of the University's students come from out of state and only a
small portion bring a car to our urban campus.  Consequently, only a
portion of the students have Pennsylvania driver's licenses and most of
those come from within the state.  Most of the in-state students never
bother to change their licensed address - why bother?  They will be
moving each year for four years while their parents stay put.

The result is really quite predictable, on-campus registration seems to
be soaring, but we actually now have fewer students living on campus who
have chosen to register to vote this election cycle!  In the past year,
the registration in our ward went from about 7,500 to over 10,000.  And
we expect that our registration totals will exceed the ward's population
before the turn of the century!

The registration totals for Philadelphia as a whole increased by about
ninety-one thousand since last November and up about sixty-six thousand
since 1992, despite the fact that Philadelphia is hemorrhaging
population to the suburbs due to excessive taxes, inferior schools, and
alarming crime.  I can tell you that voter interest is actually way off
from 1992, so the increase is not due to enthusiasm.  Our ward, which is
one of sixty-five, accounted for almost 3% of the increase!  The
Philadelphia Inquirer reported that registration was up.  I contend that
if you wash out the voter removals which have been forbidden by law,
registration is off -- way off!

"Why does all this matter and what are the implications for survey
research?", you may wonder.  Well the first thing the survey researcher
must do is draw a random sample.  Most often, the samples are drawn from
voter registration data.  Any distortions or asymmetries which appear in
the sample will very likely distort the results.

What distortions do I imagine?  I would suggest that the accumulations
of registrations which I describe are directly related to the mobility
or transience of the voter population.  Excess registrations will pile
up the fastest in areas where the population moves frequently.  In
Philadelphia, we are seeing the greatest accumulations concentrated in
college campus areas and prison release halfway houses (despite a new
prohibition on registrations by convicted felons who have served time
during the previous five years).

Areas where rental housing predominates tend to have much higher housing
turnover than those areas where housing is owner occupied and these are
the areas where registrations will most likely accumulate.  Almost no
excess registrations will accumulate in areas where the neighborhood is
very stable and population turnover is slow.

It doesn't take a genius to see that the former areas have a
predisposition to vote Democratic and the latter are more disposed to
vote Republican.  When you consider that inner city residents,
particularly those in large Eastern cities, are also not as often
licensed drivers and that other incentives may exist which tend to
discourage listing a previous residence on the registration affidavit
(flight from creditors, avoidance of child support responsibilities, or
evasion of the criminal justice system), you have a rather enormous
possibility that my anecdotal observations as to what is happening here
in Philadelphia may quite accurately reflect a national phenomenon.

As I grew up, the idea of a "migrant farm worker" seemed to almost
synonymous with California.  Could it be that Dole is seeming to have
the greatest difficulties in those states with the most transient
populations?

If the bias I describe is introduced into the pool of registered voters
and is not treated prior to sample selection, pollsters could be drawing
a sample which over represents the actual voting population of those
areas where mobility is highest.  When the actual survey is
administered, the pollsters call a number and get the intended recipient
of the call, a disconnect or a new resident.  For the disconnect, they
continue by trying to reach another alternative voter from the same
area.  But the entire exercise will remain distorted, because too many
of the initial calls are being placed to areas where registration rolls
have been padded by the folly of Motor Voter.  The reflection of the
surveyed population is distorted and the short man appears to be tall.

The mirror is imperfect.

I will not go out on a limb and predict an outright Dole victory.  But I
will predict that the news media will be looking at the exit polls and
actual results on November 5 and declare that it is an unexpectedly
close race.  They will explain that somehow Clinton failed to get his
supporters to the polls.  I will look at my worksheet for the 22nd
Division and know that if everyone who actually lives in the Quad, shows
up and votes, the reported turnout will still be under forty-five
percent.  I can then use that statistic to either indict Generation X
voters (for apathy) or the wisdom of Motor Voter, which makes such
nonsense possible!

William Alexander Roper is a strategic MIS consultant in Philadelphia
where he serves as Vice Chairman of the Ward 27 Republican Committee.

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