A look at voter registration and turnout
By Aubrey Ann Parker
For the last few years, I have been crunching data about voter turnout and voting results for Benzie County, and I have also compared these data with population demographics. It is just kind of a hobby—something fun to do, trying to figure out statistically why Benzie County works the way that it does. #ilovespreadsheets
Here are a few of the cool trends that I have found:
1. BENZIE COUNTY HAS HIGH VOTER REGISTRATION: And by high, I mean literally off the charts.
OK, let me explain. If you are 18 or older, you are considered part of the Voting Age Population (also known as VAP), meaning that you are old enough to vote. But let’s face it, not everyone who is old enough to vote actually registers to vote. Moreover, not everyone who is old enough to vote is even eligible to register to vote; thus there is an entirely separate category called Voting Eligible Population (VEP), which excludes non-citizens, criminals, and others who are 18 years of age or older (so they fit into VAP) but are not eligible to vote (so they do not fit into VEP).
All of the confusing lingo aside, let’s look at how many people who are old enough to vote (VAP) are actually registering to vote.
Over the past decade, only six out of 10 Americans who were old enough to vote (VAP) actually were registered to vote—this ranged from a high of 65 percent in 2012 to a low of 59 percent in 2014. In Michigan, that statistic is a little higher: it is more like seven out of 10 Michiganders over the last decade. (A high of 75 percent in 2012 and a low of 68 percent in 2014.)
So what is voter registration like in Benzie County? It is literally off the charts: 102 percent in 2010, 100 percent in 2012, 103 percent in 2014.
Wait, what? How is that possible? Well, the most likely scenario is that someone’s numbers are off: either the number of registered voters in Benzie County or the Census estimate for how many adults are living here.
In other words, in order to get a figure of more than 100 percent, this means that we have more people registered to vote in Benzie County than the number of adults that the U.S. Census has estimated are living in Benzie County. For instance, the U.S. Census estimated that we had 17,519 people living in Benzie County on July 1, 2014, and an estimated 14,155 (80.8 percent) were 18 years or older. But according to state records, we had 14,562 registered voters here in July 2014, thus we get 103 percent voter registration.
Regardless of why the data is off and by how much it is off, I doubt very much that it would make that big of a difference: I bet that our numbers would still hover closer to 100 percent than to the national average of 60 percent or the state average of 70 percent. And I think that this is pretty amazing. To even be close to 100 percent voter registration—let alone to be over 100 percent—means that something is going on here in Benzie County to make us register to vote more than other places, but what is it?
I am not entirely sure, but I have a sneaky suspicion that our active Benzie County League of Women, Benzie Republicans, and Benzie Democrats play a big role. Maybe it has something to do with a high proportion of “snowbirds” voting absentee here in Benzie County but not getting counted here by the Census?
I also know from experience that students at Benzie Central High School get extra credit in their government and civics classes—which all students are required to take—when they register to vote. Additionally, just last week, the Benzie Republicans and the Benzie Democrats teamed up to register students to vote during lunch: they signed up 10 of the possible 17 age-appropriate students at Frankfort High School and an additional two at Benzie.
On top of that, I have heard that the employees at the Secretary of State office in Honor are diligent in asking every person who goes there to get a driver’s license and/or state ID if they also want to register to vote.
“Their perseverance of getting people to register is a big help when it comes to the number of registered voters that we have here in Benzie County,” says Gaylynn Howton, local resident.
2. BENZIE COUNTY HAS HIGH VOTER TURNOUT: And by high, I mean 7 percent higher than turnout in Michigan and 15 percent higher than national turnout, as a general rule.
When it comes to voter turnout, many media outlets have reported that Benzie is often among the top counties in the state to have people show up to the polls. “Registered Voter Turnout” is voter turnout as a percent of the registered voter list who actually voted on election day—this does not count people who are not registered to vote. In Michigan, you have to be registered three weeks before the date of an election to be able to vote. (Note: Tuesday, October 11, was the last day to register for the upcoming presidential election on Tuesday, November 8. As of Monday, October 9, Benzie County had 15,042 registered voters.)
Across the country, there is generally lower turnout in primary elections, in off-year elections for state legislators (called “mid-term” elections), and in local elections. However, regardless if it is a presidential election in the fall or a presidential primary in the spring, regardless if it is a presidential year at all or if it is just a mid-term Senate race, Benzie County tends to turn out in numbers that far exceed the national and state averages.
And last spring’s presidential primary was no exception: voter turnout in Benzie County was 38.7 percent on Tuesday, March 8, 2016, compared with 33.8 percent on the state level. And while it is true that voter turnout was higher than normal throughout the United States during this presidential primary, this was not an isolated incident for Benzie County—consistently over the past decade and a half, we have had turnout numbers that average 5 percentage points higher than Michigan as a whole: as much as 8.8 percent higher in 2000 and as low as 3.2 percent higher in 2008.
In fact, we had incredible turnout last spring for the presidential primary in Benzie County—around 2,200 more people voted in the 2016 primary than in the 2012 primary!
And no, you cannot pin that (solely) on an increase in registered voters, because the number of registered voters in Benzie County has increased by only 500 since 2012. Nor can you pin it on this year having both a Republican presidential primary and a Democratic presidential primary, whereas 2012 only had a Republican presidential primary, because the 2016 numbers were also well above 2008, the last time that we had both a Republican and a Democratic primary in Michigan—we had 5,696 voters turn out in 2016 compared with 3,516 in 2012 and 3,090 in 2008.
In other words, this year’s primary helped to close the gap in the number of registered voters who vote compared with the number who do not vote. It will be interesting to see if and how these trends continue in the upcoming presidential election this month.
To conclude—yay for us in Benzie County for rocking the vote, not only in the 2016 primary election but in all of our elections for the past 16 years!