Measuring Voter Turnout: An Inconsistent Science

flickr: DonkeyHotey

Editor's Note: Civil Beat is taking a deep look at what's behind Hawaii's low voter turnout. Read Ian Lind's first story in the series, Hawaii's Vanishing Voter.

There are at least three ways voter turnout is measured and reported. The competing measures don’t always yield comparable results, although they are often used interchangeably, creating lots of confusion for anyone trying to assess our election performance

First, there’s voter turnout as reported by Hawaii’s Office of Elections, which is simply the total number of votes cast in an election compared to the total number of registered voters.

It’s quick and easy to calculate because election officials compile these statistics and they can be reported immediately. Voter turnout as a percentage of registered voters is an integral part of the official election returns published by the state.

In the 2010 General Election, for example, the Office of Elections reported turnout was 55.8 percent.

The major problem with this approach is that makes turnout look better because it uses the smaller base of registered voters instead of the larger number of all potential voters. It also ignores variations in the ease of voter registration, which makes comparisons between states difficult.

The U.S. Census Bureau now reports voter turnout in two ways designed to permit easier and more direct comparisons. Turnout is reported by comparing the number of votes cast to either the total adult population of a state, or to its population of adult U.S. citizens.

These state-by-state registration and turnout statistics are now reported by the Census Bureau for each election year.

Using this formula, the Census Bureau measured Hawaii’s voter turnout in 2010 at 39.9 percent of the total adult population, and 43.1 percent of adult citizens, both well below the 55.8 percent turnout figure used by the state.

The bottom line is that although different measurements may nudge us slightly up or down the relative rankings, we’re left with the fact that fewer Hawaii residents vote than in most other parts of the country, in both presidential and gubernatorial election years.

*Ian Lind is a veteran political reporter and longtime Hawaii investigative journalist who blogs at iLind.net.


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