How many Missourians really voted?

Nov 20, 2012

The day after the Presidential Election, Missouri’s Secretary of State’s office published a list indicating how many voters came out to the polls. The list gives numbers all the way down to a county level, and statewide, it estimates voter turnout at 65.7%. That statewide figure is calculated based on the number of registered voters and votes cast. John Petrocik is a professor at MU.  He says that method of counting voters doesn’t accurately record the percentage of the total population that votes.

“When you report a turnout rate just based on the registered voters, you’ve artificially inflated the proportion of us who are voting – because you’ve deleted the 20 percent who don’t register,” Petrocik said.

Petrocik says problems with using the lists of registered voters can creep in when people move, or die — and then they’re not taken off the list of registered voters.

“Now, it’s not a social catastrophe,” Petrocik said.

Petrocik says he’s not that concerned with making sure the count of registered voters is accurate because he thinks there are better ways to measure voter turnout. He favors using the “Voting Eligible Population.” That figure’s calculated by taking the population of Missourians who are old enough to vote, and then adjusting it for people who can’t vote. For example: non-citizens, or ineligible felons, depending on state law. It doesn’t have anything to do with who registers to vote.

And Petrocik says, from an academic point of view it makes sense. But says it would take a significant amount of effort to actually run calculations like that.

“The government doesn’t seem to be too interested in it — and from an academic’s point of view, we know what the numbers are, but no one’s going to act on it even if we figure out what it is. So, there’s no particular incentive to figure out what the real turnout rate is,” Petrocik said.

Petrocik says the amount of over-estimation created with the “registered voter” participation count can vary depending on the type of election. But he says it’s possible the actual percentage of Missourians who voted this year could be anywhere from fifteen to twenty percent lower than what the Secretary of State’s office reported. And that could mean less than half of eligible Missourians went out to the polls this election.