Margin of Σrror

Margin of Σrror -

Did Under Voting Cost Mount Vernon Schools the November Levy Election? (Part Two)

In my first post on under voting in Knox County, Ohio, I introduced the concept of under voting and discussed patterns of under voting in races in Knox County involving candidates. I found that the Gambier precincts exhibited levels of under voting that were below the Knox County norm in the presidential race, but that under voting rates in Gambier were much higher than the Knox County norm in other races down ballot.

This piece examines the effect of under voting on an issue race, focusing on the Knox County School Levy election that took place on November 6, 2012.

The Mount Vernon School Levy failed narrowly on November 6th, losing by a margin of 6813 votes in favor (49.3%) to 7014 votes against (50.7%). Had the levy gotten 202 more votes (a tie results in a loss), it would have passed. In the Gambier precincts, 241 votes or ~18.1% of votes cast were under votes. In the non-Gambier precincts, 390 votes or ~3.2% of all votes cast were under votes.

So, getting back to the central question, did the high rate of under voting in the Gambier precincts cost Mount Vernon Schools the November Levy Election? The answer to that question, of course, is complicated. Below, I will examine four alternative scenarios, each of which results in a slightly different answer.

Scenario One- Everyone votes, under voters all vote for the levy: This scenario, while perhaps unrealistic, is the most optimistic for the levy. Had the under voters in Gambier all voted for the levy, the levy would have passed by a margin of 7054 votes to 7014 votes (pending automatic recount). This scenario, however, is probably overly optimistic; unless the school levy could have generated the sort of enthusiasm as Barack Obama, it is at least somewhat unreasonable to expect that there would be no under votes at all in this race. It is also somewhat optimistic for the levy to assume that all under voters would vote for the levy if they had cast ballots.

Scenario Two- Everyone votes, under voters support levy at rate of voters: What if one assumes that everyone votes, but that the under voters support the levy at the same rate as those who already voted? This may be a more reasonable assumption than assuming that every under voter would naturally support the levy. In the Gambier precincts, 91.2% of voters supported the school levy. Had 91.2% of the under voters supported the school levy, the levy would have gotten approximately 220 more yes votes for a total of 7033 yes votes. However, under this assumption, approximately 21 of the under voters (~8.8%) would have voted no, giving the no side a total of 7035 no votes. Under this scenario, the levy would have failed by three (!) votes (a tie results in a loss). Obviously, the levy would have gone to recount under this scenario; the only thing that would be sure under this scenario is a lengthy legal battle.

Scenario Three- Under voting falls to norm outside Gambier, under voters support levy at rate of voters: The assumption that everyone votes is also somewhat optimistic; after all outside of the Gambier (and College Township) precincts there was some under voting in this race. If we reduce under voting in this race to the non-Gambier average of 3.2%, this means that ~43 under votes would still have been cast in this race, thus meaning that 198 fewer under votes would have been cast. By allocating these under votes in the same way as the formula in Scenario Two, 6994 total votes (increase of 181) would have been cast for the levy and 7031 votes would have been cast against the levy. As a result, the levy would have needed 38 more yes votes to pass under this scenario; however, as with the previous scenario, this result falls within the 0.5% margin to trigger an automatic recount in a local, county, or municipal election.

Scenario Four- Relaxing the Assumptions of Scenarios Two and Three: While the assumptions in Scenario One were likely too loose, the assumptions in Scenarios Two and Three may be too rigid. (Goldilocks had a similar problem with temperature and pudding!) In Scenario Two, I used the 91.2% support rate among all voters. However, it is likely that most of the under voters were Kenyon students as opposed to year-round Gambier townspeople (who make up a small portion of the Gambier vote). I also suspect that Kenyon-affiliated people may have supported the levy at a slightly higher rate than the year-round Gambier townspeople (although support must have been widespread in the village among all residents for the levy to get 91.2% of the vote). Therefore, I average Scenario 1 and Scenario 2 and say that 95.6% of under voters would support the levy.

Let me also relax the assumption of under voting- what if under voting in Gambier took place at a rate of 1.6% in the school levy election, half the 3.2% average for non-Gambier precincts? After all, the Gambier precincts showed in the presidential race that their voters are quite adept at filling out ballots when they want to make their voices heard. Is this assumption reasonable? Perhaps.

Under the relaxed assumption about under voting, ~220 under voters would be converted into voters. Using the assumption of 95.6% support for the levy, I find that supporters would gain ~210 votes and opponents would gain ~10 votes. As a result, the levy would have received 7023 votes in favor and 7024 against, failing by only two (!) votes (again, tie=loss). Once again, the election would have been decided by a recount.

So did under voting cost Mount Vernon Schools the November 2012 election? The answer to that question is a definitive “maybe.” That all depends on a.) which of the above scenarios one finds most convincing and b.) what one assumes would have happened in a recount.

The only other conclusion that can draw is that, had a lower rate of under voting taken place, the election administrator’s prayer most certainly would not have been answered. Most likely a lengthy recount process would have taken place that may have dragged on for weeks if not months.



Patterns of Under Voting in Gambier and the rest of Knox County, Ohio (Part One)

Among residents of Knox County, Ohio, the political differences between Gambier (home of Kenyon College) and the rest of the county are well-known. Gambier is populated by generally liberal students and faculty who (mostly) vote Democratic; Michelle Obama even visited the Kenyon campus in 2012. In contrast, the rest of the county is largely filled with generally conservative voters who tend to vote Republican. Indeed, 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney held a campaign event at the Ariel Corporation in Mount Vernon. Overall, Knox County voted for Governor Romney over President Obama by a 61 to 37 percent margin. Outside of Gambier and surrounding College Township, President Obama won the most votes in only one precinct (there was a tie in another precinct).

Using precinct-level data from the Knox County Board of Elections, this post focuses on another noticeable difference in voting patterns that exists between Gambier and the rest of Knox County: the extent to which “under voting” takes place in various contests. According to Wikipedia, an “under vote” occurs when, “the number of choices selected by a voter in a contest is less than the maximum number allowed for that contest or when no selection is made for a single choice contest.”

A close look at the Knox County Board of Elections website reveals an interesting pattern when one examines under voting by precinct. In the 2012 presidential race, not a single “presidential under vote” was cast in either Gambier precinct (the surrounding College Township precinct also saw no under votes). What makes this so interesting? In the rest of the county every other precinct had at least one under vote in the race for president.  Indeed, 213 votes (~0.8% of all votes cast) in the rest of the county were under votes.

What makes this pattern even more remarkable is that it begins to reverse itself in other races down ballot. Outside of the race for president, the under vote rate in Gambier exceeded the norm for the rest of the county.

For example:

  • In the Senate Race between Senator Sherrod Brown (D) and State Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), there were 87 under votes in Gambier or ~6.5% of all votes cast. Outside of the Gambier precincts, there were 619 under votes or ~2.3% of all votes cast.
  • In the House Race between Representative Bob Gibbs (R) and Challenger Joyce Healy-Abrams, there were 140 under votes in Gambier or ~10.5% of all votes cast. Outside of the Gambier precincts, there were 1360 under votes or ~5% of all votes cast. This despite the fact that the only debate between Gibbs and Healy-Abrams was actually held at Kenyon College in Gambier!
  • In the “Nonpartisan” State Supreme Court Race between Incumbent Robert Cupp (“R”) and Challenger Bill O’Neill (“D”), there were 730 under votes or ~54.8% (!) of all votes cast. Outside of the Gambier precincts, there were 6453 under votes or ~23.6% of all votes cast. (Note: I called this race “nonpartisan” due to the fact that, although no partisan labels appear on ballots, candidates are nominated through partisan primaries.)
  • The pattern is similar in other races down ballot.

So what implications can be drawn from this?

Here are three initial takeaways:

  • The Power of the Obama Campaign: Young voters really connected with President Obama and his campaign did a great job of reaching out to these voters and getting them to turn out to the polls. These voters were excited to vote for President Obama and filled out their ballots in such a way as to act on this excitement. This excitement about voting for President Obama, however, did not represent increased loyalty to the Democratic Party as a whole; this was made clear in the 2010 midterms as turnout among young voters remained relatively constant with historical patterns and did not experience any noticeable surge.
  • Importance of Partisan Cues: The substantial drop off that took place in the Gambier precincts for the State Supreme Court race underscores the odd things that can happen in ostensibly non-partisan judicial races. While some Kenyon students were willing to vote for a candidate with a “D” next to their name, they weren’t about to go searching for the partisan affiliation of a non-partisan candidate. (Good work on non-partisan judicial elections is being done by University of Pittsburgh Professor Chris Bonneau and UNC Graduate Student John Lappie.)
  • Under voting isn’t a liberal thing, it’s a college student thing: While under voting rates were above average in the Gambier precincts, this was not the case in the College Township Precinct. Home to some Kenyon employees, College Township has an ever-so-slight Democratic tilt. Furthermore, under voting in College Township was in line with the rates for the rest of the county. For example, 5 voters or ~2.2% under voted in the U.S. Senate race between Senator Brown and State Treasurer Mandel in College Township.

These implications are certainly not the only ones that can (or should) be drawn from this data. Indeed, the next post in this series will examine the practical implications of under voting for low turnout races, focusing specifically on the Mount Vernon School Levy.