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Scott Foltz

December 10th, 2014

Professor Lavery
Political Science Senior Seminar

The effects of no excuses absentee voting on voter turnout in

midterm election cycles

Throughout the past half century, voter turnout in the United States has experienced a
significant and relatively consistent decline.1 Between 1960 and 1994, electoral participation in
the United States decreased from 64 percent to below 50 percent,2 giving the United States one
of the lowest voter turnout rates among democracies.3 Political scientists have identified
numerous factors to explain the decline of voting in the United States and have divided
explanatory theories into five sub-categories; restrictions in the voting process, political
mobilization, potential voters socioeconomic situation, the overall state of the economy and
psychological variables related to an individuals political action.4 While these subsets contain
significant overlap, they encompass a wide variety of variables affecting voter turnout and
illustrate the difficulties in altering circumstances to increase turnout.


Francia & Herrnson, 2004

Traugott, 2004
Traugott, 2004
Traugott, 2004

Policymakers have responded to declining voter turnout by altering one of the more
straightforward and external impediments to voting; restrictions related to how and where voting
takes place. Convenience voting legislation, statutes that strive to ease restrictions inherent in the
electoral process so as to increase voter turnout, represent the product of this reform and have
grown significantly over the past several decades. Many states have instituted measures such as
same day and online voter registration, early voting, and even all-mail voting in attempts to
lower the costs of voting and consequently increase voter turnout (albeit with varying results).5

In this paper, I examine the effects of no excuse absentee voting in relation to voter turnout in
midterm election cycles. No excuses absentee voting (often referred to as early voting), a process
by which any registered voter may request a ballot either online or in the mail that they will
receive and may mail back or return in-person before a given election, has grown exponentially
in the past 35 years. For example, California became the first state to allow no excuses absentee
voting in 1978 while twenty-six states and the District of Columbia permit their citizens to do so
today..6 While a substantial body of literature exists regarding the effects of convenience voting
reforms in Presidential elections, midterm elections possess little prominence within the
literature on no excuses absentee voting. I begin my study with a review of the literature that
addresses both facets of my analysis, exploring the relationships between general theories of
voter turnout, midterm elections, and no excuse absentee voting. I then explain the method of my
analysis, a comparative case study that examines voting rates during midterm elections in a
subset of states that have implemented no excuse absentee voting reform. My analysis attempts

5 Gronke, Galanes-Rosenbaum & Miller, 2007

6 Leighley & Nagler, 2011

to inform a greater understanding of the extent to which no excuse absentee voting alters turnout
in midterm election cycles.

Literature Review
The existing literature regarding voter turnout presents a mixed bag of theories and pervading
uncertainty. Perhaps the most influential text on the subject, An Economic Theory of Democracy
by Anthony Downs, establishes a cost benefit model of voting in which an individuals decision
to vote falls within the framework of rational choice theory.7 More specifically, Downs posits
that one votes in a particular election if the benefits they will receive by the election of a certain
candidate, when multiplied by the probability ones individual vote will affect the outcome of the
election, outweigh the total costs of voting.8 On a basic level, the model assumes individuals vote
in a rational manner to serve their self-interest. Many have questioned the scope and validity of
Downs theory in relation to rational choice theory. These critics claim the model relies too
heavily on the probability that ones individual vote will matter (statistically very low) and thus
significantly underestimates the number of voters in any given election.9 Furthermore, Aldrich
argues voter turnout presents numerous conflicts with Downs premise as it is rarely in the
individuals self-interest to vote,10 and thus any individual possesses little incentive to vote
within the framework of rational choice theory. Others, such as Riker and Ordeshook, have
revised the theory by incorporating variables related to the value implicit in the act of voting
(such as fulfilling a sense of duty) rather than votings perceived benefits.11 However, by
7 Downs, 1957
8 Downs, 1957
9 Blais, Young, Fleury & Lapp, 1995
10 Aldrich, 1993
11 Riker & Ordeshook, 1968

weighing the intrinsic value of voting too heavily and ignoring other important variables related
to voter turnout, this model also severely underestimates the number of voters in any given
election.12 The failure of these models to accurately predict voter turnout illustrates the difficulty
scholars have had in answering the question of why citizens vote and suggests many variables
are involved in this equation. The literature contains numerous other theories and formulas that
attempt to describe the phenomenon of voter turnout such as ones desire to minimize their regret
following the outcome of an election13 and various social pressures one experiences.14 Often
focusing on Presidential election cycles, all of these factors fail to describe electoral participation
in a comprehensive and valid manner. Moreover, these theories fail to account for the significant
discrepancy in turnout between Presidential and midterm elections.

More recent literature advocates for an encompassing and multi-faceted approach when
attempting to explain voter turnout. Within this broader field of possibilities, the literature
regarding voter turnout presents several theories that more clearly explain the comparatively low
turnout in midterm election cycles. According to Matsusaka and his information theory of voter
turnout, those who possess more knowledge regarding the candidates are more likely to vote.15
Ragsdale and Rusk expand on this claim by concluding that an individuals voters knowledge of
the issues and perceived candidate differences also influences his/her decision to vote.16
Statewide midterm elections, typically lower in profile and spending than nationwide
Presidential contests, are particularly influenced by this lack of voter knowledge. However,
certain variables may increase a voters knowledge and consequently have the potential to raise

Blais, Young, Fleury & Lapp, 1995

Blais, Young, Fleury & Lapp, 1995
Gerber, Green & Larimer, 2008
Matsusaka, 1995
Ragsdale & Rusk, 1995

turnout in these low information contests. For instance, Caldeira, Patterson and Markko found
voter mobilization by candidates and parties (involving the spread of information related to
candidates and issues) has increased turnout in midterm elections.17 Moreover, other more
uncontrolled and election dependent variables such as competitive races,18 senatorial and
gubernatorial races,19 and polarizing or ideological issues20 increase turnout by raising attention
and informing voters of midterm elections. Convenience voting reforms represent another
possible form of drawing attention to low information contests. However, these convenience
voting reforms, such as no excuses absentee voting, present a myriad of conflicting research and

Three strains of thought exist in the literature regarding the affects of no excuse absentee voting
statutes; no excuses absentee voting produces no discernible effect on turnout, no excuses
absentee voting increases voter turnout, and no excuses absentee voting stimulates turnout
initially due to a variety of factors before eventually regressing back to pre-reform levels.
Scholars remain split between these three conclusions. For instance, utilizing a statistical analysis
of U.S. Census Bureau data, Larocca and Klemanski argue that no excuses absentee voting
significantly increase turnout among voters aged 18 to 64.21 Contradicting this conclusion, two
separate statistical analyses of Presidential elections between 1980 and 2004 find no significant
correlation between no excuses absentee voting and voter turnout.22 Adding to this confusion,
other studies examining the issue provide evidence that turnout increases in the initial election

Caldeira, Patterson & Markko, 1985

Jackson, 1997
Jackson, 2002
Grummel, 2008
Larocca & Klemanski, 2011
Gronke, Galanes-Rosenbaum & Miller, 2007; Fortier, 2006

after reform,23 but that this effect depreciates in following election cycles.24 Several theories exist
to explain this temporary turnout increase in states with no excuse absentee voting measures. For
example, Giammo and Brox hypothesize that the novelty and originality of the reform attracts
attention initially, but that this effect soon wears off in later election cycles.25 The stimulating
effect of certain mobilization tactics may also increase turnout following no excuse absentee
voting reform. Specifically, Oliver contends that when combined with party mobilization efforts
that spread awareness of no excuse absentee voting reform, the costs of voting are further
alleviated and the effect of the reform on turnout is magnified exponentially.26 While Karp and
Banducci challenge Olivers claims by concluding that little correlation between absentee voting,
party mobilization and overall turnout exists,27 others describe a synergistic relationship
between convenience voting reforms and mobilization in state legislative elections.28 Despite
these contradicting studies, it appears no excuses absentee voting has increased turnout in
multiple states in the initial election following reform and that certain mobilizing factors
influence turnout in midterm election cycles.

As discussed earlier, the literature regarding convenience voting reforms in relation to midterm
elections exists as a rather unexplored entity. The extensive and conflicting research on no
excuses absentee voting in Presidential elections provides a background of important findings to
inform my own analysis. The literature surrounding voter turnout in midterm elections elevates
the importance of information while highlighting certain variables that may bring attention to

Leighley & Nagler, 2014

Giammo & Brox, 2010
Giammo & Brox, 2010
Oliver, 1996
Karp & Banducci, 2001
Francia & Herrnson, 2004

these elections and consequently increase turnout. Despite the diverse abundance of theories
explaining voter turnout, convenience voting reforms and midterm elections necessitate further
study. I examine if no excuse absentee voting increases electoral participation in these typically
low turnout contests.

Research Question & Methods

My research question focuses on these midterm elections. I ask if no excuses absentee
voting reform increases electoral participation in these low information contests. I test two
hypotheses informed by the existing literature.
H1. No excuses absentee voting increases voter turnout in the first midterm election
following reform.
H2. Voter turnout, following the initial increase in the first midterm election after reform,
will regress back to pre-reform levels in later midterm election cycles.
Given state-by-state differences in electoral participation, the many uncontrolled
variables inherent in this analysis, and the similarities of no excuses absentee laws that states
have adopted, I present a multi-case study approach that provides the best and most effective
means by which to test my hypotheses. While utilizing a case study method will limit the
generalizability of my analysis, it allows me to examine the effects of voting reform in diverse
political contexts. Each of the three states examined in my case study are intensely analyzed in
each midterm election throughout a twelve-year span. Specifically, I examine voting data from
the midterm election cycle before the implementation of no excuse absentee reform in


comparison to the three following midterm election cycles during which the reform was in place.
I focus my research on Iowa, North Carolina and Vermont. Representing a geographical
distribution of the United States and abundance of electoral histories, these states also possess
remarkably similar no excuse absentee voting laws and publicly provide the absentee and overall
voting data that makes my analysis possible (uncommon among most states). The data utilized in
this analysis is supplied from the Internet on each states respective Secretary of State website. A
variety of newspaper and journal sources are used to gather information related to particular
elections and evaluate the influence of extraneous variables that may affect my data.

There are multiple factors that complicate my data analysis and pose significant obstacles
to my overall hypothesis. Namely, each state possesses different candidates, issues, and overall
political dynamics that may influence voter turnout. In order to control for these turnout
influencing factors in as much as possible, I have selected the most significant variables effecting
turnout for each election cycle that are likely to change in significance from one election cycle to
the next. I examine these variables within the context of statewide senatorial and gubernatorial
elections as these contests represent the greatest turnout stimulating force in midterm election

Competitive senatorial and gubernatorial elections

29 Jackson, 2002

Senatorial and gubernatorial races represent one factor influencing midterm election turnout.
Often magnifying electoral participation to a greater extent when both are on the ballot in the
same election year,30 these elections stimulate turnout (as much as three percent in senatorial
races and four percent in gubernatorial races)31 most significantly in competitive elections. As
defined by other studies on the subject,32 a competitive election is one in which the margin of
victory falls within ten percent. While the familiarity of an incumbent candidate may increase
turnout regardless of an elections competitiveness,33 in midterm elections the closeness of
senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns appears to influence turnout more so than incumbency.34
According to Jackson, it is not the incumbent that stimulates turnout but, the presence of visible
opposition to an incumbent that is especially important for enhancing aggregate
participation.35 Cox and Munger support Jacksons argument,36 while others conclude that a lack
of competition in gubernatorial and senatorial races actually suppresses turnout.37 Midterm
turnout appears to reach peak potential when an incumbent faces a challenger in a competitive
gubernatorial or senatorial election. These variables, along with other factors to be discussed,
must be considered when analyzing voter turnout within a particular state.

Ideologically polarizing issues and ballot initiatives

The nature of the issues being debated in a midterm election cycle also influences voter
turnout. Studies have shown that ideological and morality driven issues effect electoral

Caldeira & Patterson, 1983

Smith, 2001
Jackson, 1997
Jackson, 1997
Jackson, 1997
Jackson, 1997
Cox & Munger, 1989
Gilliam, 1985

participation.38 While these issues do not appear to significantly influence turnout in Presidential
elections,39 moral and value-based issues draw attention to typically low information midterm
elections and consequently stimulate greater interest and turnout.40 Utilized by many candidates
in their rhetoric, these issues may also appear on ballots as initiatives or amendments to a states
constitution and induce a similar effect. Citing the 1992 midterm election, Biggers finds that
while the majority of ballot initiatives fail to stimulate electoral participation, social or moral
issues appearing on the ballot in midterm election cycles significantly increase turnout.41 Others
confirm this finding, stating that the effect of such ballot initiatives on turnout is somewhere
between three and four percent.42 Moral and ideological issues, often polarized and publicized,
play a significant role in drawing attention to midterm elections and consequently stimulate

These competitive senatorial and gubernatorial races, as well as ideological or morality driven
issues and ballot initiatives, represent the greatest and most variable influencing factors in
midterm election cycles. While I cannot fully account for all of the variables affecting turnout,
my extensive research into each states electoral system and political climate allows me to
remain cognizant of these factors and examine them in relation to any significant data I collect.
On a larger scale, these factors may allow me to prove or refute my hypotheses while also
possibly explaining why no excuse absentee voting measures increased turnout in one state while
producing no noticeable effect on electoral participation in another state.


Biggers, 2011
Rogowski, 2013
Plane & Gershtenson, 2004
Biggers, 2011
Smith, 2001


Overall vote totals, absentee vote totals and the percent of registered voters participating
in the electoral process provide the basis for my analysis. I will display this data and the
examined extraneous variables for each state in the tables below.
State: Example
Midterm election year

Votes cast

Percent of those registered

who voted

Absentee votes cast

Percent absentee votes

comprise of total votes

State: Example
Midterm election year

State: Example
Midterm election

senatorial election
(within ten points)

gubernatorial election
(within ten points)

issues or ballot


Case Study: Iowa

Possessing no excuse absentee voting measures since 1990, Iowas Secretary of States
office provides an abundance of detailed voting data to examine. This resulting data allows an
examination of both turnout and no excuse absentee voting rates in each midterm election,



beginning in 1990 and concluding in 2002. As shown in figure one, the percentage of registered
voters participating experienced a substantial decline after the implementation of no excuses
absentee voting. While at face value these statistics appear to disprove my first hypothesis, other
variables inherent in the 1990 and 1994 election cycles may have affected these results.

The 1990 Iowa midterm election, featuring both a gubernatorial and senatorial election,
experienced higher rates of turnout among registered voters than Iowas 1994 gubernatorial
election. While the 1990 gubernatorial election was not competitive as Incumbent Republican
Governor Terry Branstad defeated Democratic challenger Donald Avenson by nearly 22
percentage points,43 the competitive senatorial election of 1990 (in which Incumbent Democratic
Senator Tom Harkin defeated Republican challenger Tom Tauke by nine percentage points)44
may have stimulated turnout to some extent. In contrast, the gubernatorial election of 1994,
while touted as a close race throughout the campaign,45 led to Branstads fourth term as Governor
as he defeated Democratic challenger Bonnie Campbell convincingly by fifteen percentage
points.46 While it is possible that the predicted closeness of the 1994 gubernatorial election may
have slightly stimulated turnout, the competitive nature of the 1990 senatorial election likely
increased turnout in this election to a more significant extent. This examination provides some
support for my first hypothesis by suggesting that the drop in turnout percentage of registered
voters between 1990 and 1994 was facilitated by variables unrelated to no excuses absentee
voting reform. Further analysis of the issues also lends validity to this finding.


U.S. Election Atlas

U.S. Election Atlas
Klemesrud & Schoenberg, 1994
U.S. Election Atlas


The important political issues within Iowa remained relatively stable between 1990 and 2002.
Taxes on the middle class and wealthy, education and environmental issues (i.e. agriculture) were
all heavily debated topics throughout this time interval.47 However, the central issue that arises
more often in debates in 1990 than any other midterm election year is abortion. The 1989
Supreme Court decision giving states more power to restrict abortion pushed the issue into the
spotlight for the 1990 election cycle and directly influenced the actions of Iowan candidates.48
Incumbent Senator and Democrat Tom Harkin vocally expressed his support for abortion rights
throughout his campaign in ads (an action he had not taken previously),49 while two-term
Incumbent and Republican Governor Terry Branstad expressed his opposition to abortion at ProLife rallies.50 While abortion remained an issue worth mentioning in later elections such as the
1998 gubernatorial race,51 issues such as education and agriculture received much greater news
coverage among the gubernatorial candidates in 1994.52 Did abortion stimulate voter turnout in
the 1990 election? Statistically, the abortion debate could have accounted for the three percent
discrepancy in turnout between 1990 and 1994. When viewed in combination with 1990s
competitive senatorial election, this analysis suggests turnout may have been significantly
stimulated in the 1990 election and that no excuses absentee voting may have actually increased
turnout above what one would expect during the 1994 midterm election. While these finding
provide some support for my first hypothesis, the comparatively low turnout of the 1998 election
and the following elections provide important insight into my second hypothesis.


Glover, 1990
McMillan, 1990
Toner, 1990
Toner, 1990
Kuczka, 1998
Kuczka, 1998


Despite the presence of a social ballot measure related to the equality of men and women,53 the
1998 Iowa election produced a startling low overall vote total and percentage of registered voters
participating. While no excuse absentee votes continued to increase exponentially (see figure
two), the election as a whole received fifty thousand less votes than 1994.54 At first glance, this
data falls somewhat in line with hypothesis two by suggesting electoral participation declines
significantly following one cycle of no excuse absentee voting. However, without the visible
increase in voter turnout percentage of registered voters in 1994 that hypothesis one assumes, the
severe voting decline of 1998 may illustrate an anomaly induced by other factors.

Unfamiliarity and lack of competition represent the two most significant turnout influencing
factors in the 1998 election. Deciding not to seek reelection to a fifth-term in 1998, Republican
Governor Branstad left an open seat that was eventually won by Democrat Tom Vilsack.55 The
staggering and sudden drop in turnout from 1994 to 1998 suggests the lack of an incumbent in
the gubernatorial race may have significantly suppressed voter turnout. Moreover, an
examination of the senatorial election of 1998 indicates an overall lack of competition also
suppressed turnout. For instance, the 1998 senatorial election featured immensely popular
incumbent Republican Senator Chuck Grassley who won with 68.41 percent.56 In contrast, the
2002 election, also possessing senatorial and gubernatorial contests, featured the Incumbent
Governor Vilsack in a much more competitive race (reelected with a modest 54.18 percent of the
vote).57 These variables help explain the three percentage point difference in turnout between
1998 and 2002. However, these factors fail to fully to explain the almost ten percentage point

U.S. Election Atlas
Kuczka, 1998
U.S. Election Atlas
U.S. Election Atlas


drop between 1994 and 1998 or the six point drop between 1994 and 2002. No excuses absentee
voting, possibly stimulating turnout in 1994, may account for some of this discrepancy.
However, it seems unlikely that no excuses absentee voting alone could account for such
variations in turnout.

An analysis of Iowa has produced mixed and conflicting results from which I cannot draw any
certain conclusions. While the percentage of those registered voting declined after the
implementation of no excuses absentee voting, several factors examined in these elections may
have affected these data to a significant extent. It remains possible that the implementation of no
excuses absentee voting significantly stimulated voter turnout in the 1994 Iowa midterm
election. However, the presence of these turnout influencing variables and the decline in the
percentage of registered voters between 1990 and 1998 invalidates the possibility of producing
any confident finding.

FIGURE 1 (data provided by Iowa Sec. of States Office)

Midterm Election Year
Votes Cast


Percent of those Registered

who voted

Iowa experienced an overall decline in turnout of registered voters voting between 1990 and
2002. The decrease in votes cast between 1994 and 1998, as well as the over twelve percent drop
in percent of those registered voting between 1990 and 1998, appear particularly alarming and
suggest other turnout influencing variables (besides no excuses absentee voting) may have
stimulated turnout in 1990 or suppressed turnout in 1998.
Midterm Election Year

Absentee Votes Cast

Percent absentee votes

comprise of total votes



FIGURE 2 (data provided by Iowa Sec. of States Office)

< .09

Despite declining overall turnout figures, the number of absentee votes cast in Iowa increased
exponentially after the implementation of no excuses absentee voting. These statistics illustrate
the growing popularity of no excuses absentee voting reform among Iowans within this time
frame. Additionally, these data display how an increase in absentee vote totals does not
necessarily equate to an increase in the percent of registered voters participating in the electoral
Midterm election

senatorial election
(within ten points)


gubernatorial election issues or ballot
(within ten points)

Three of the four midterm elections examined experienced some form of turnout influencing
variable. The combination of these variables in 1990 likely stimulated turnout to an extreme
extent in comparison to the three following election cycles. Turnout in 1994 appears unusually
high despite the absence of these factors (possibly due to the implementation of no excuses
absentee voting). While 1998 also featured a gubernatorial election and hot button moral issue
(abortion), the percent of those registered that voted was extremely low and suggests other
factors may have suppressed turnout.

Case Study: North Carolina

Instituting no excuse absentee voting in the year 2000, North Carolina provides an
interesting case to examine. While three of the four elections analyzed involved senatorial
contests, North Carolina gubernatorial elections take place during Presidential election cycles,
thus limiting the scope of my analysis. However, this anomaly also allows me to provide a more
thorough examination of these senatorial elections. The voting data appears to align with my first



hypothesis, as both the percent of those registered who voted and the overall vote total increased
significantly in the election following the institution of no excuse absentee voting reform.
Despite these initial findings, the data necessitates a comparative analysis of the 1998 and 2002
election cycles to examine if other variables influenced these results.

Senatorial races were on the ballot in North Carolina in both 1998 and 2002. The 1998
election featured Republican Incumbent Lauch Faircloth against Democratic challenger and
North Carolina lawyer John Edwards. Polls leading up to the contest had predicted a close and
competitive race.58 These predictions were proven correct as Edwards defeated Faircloth with
51.15 percent of the vote, winning by 83,294 votes out of 1,975,180 votes cast.59 By contrast,
while the 2002 North Carolina senatorial election did not involve an incumbent, it was the most
expensive senate race in the country.60 Republican Elizabeth Dole defeated Democrat Erskine
Bowles with 53.56 percent of the vote, winning by 200,681 out of 2,296,647 total votes.61
Contrary to the fairly competitive result, polls conducted in late September had shown Dole
leading by eleven percentage points (this was even closer than originally thought).62 Overall,
these results do nothing to disprove hypothesis ones validity. While the high spending of 2002
and resulting attention the candidates received may have increased voter turnout, the 1998
senatorial contest involved a very competitive incumbent-challenger election that one would
expect to also stimulate turnout. Despite these encouraging findings, the other issues and ballot
initiatives must be examined before drawing any final conclusions.


Kevin Sack, 1998

U.S. Election Atlas
The New York Times, 2002
U.S. Election Atlas
Broder, 2002


Health care, agriculture, and the economy represent the major issues debated and discussed in
both the 1998 and 2002 senatorial contests.63 While its likely these issues did not produce a
noticeable effect on turnout in any one election over another, several issues unique to each
midterm election cycle may have significantly influenced turnout. In particular, the ClintonLewinsky scandal dominated political debate and discourse in the 1998 election cycle. Many
within North Carolina saw the affair as an important issue,64 and some even believed the 1998
election represented a referendum on the presidents conduct.65 In response, Senator Faircloth
attempted repeatedly to associate Edwards with Clinton to damage his reputation, utilizing
Clinton-based ads more so than any other senate candidate in the country.66 While these attacks
eventually failed to win Faircloth the election, their polarizing nature likely stimulated turnout to
some extent. The 1998 election also featured initiatives on the ballot related to clean water and
natural gas bonds,67 yet these most likely produced no vote mobilizing effect. By contrast, the
2002 election involved no polarizing moral issue or any initiatives on the ballot. While early on
Republicans touted Iraq as a major issue, as the midterms approached Republican campaigns
quickly shifted their focus back to the economy and job recovery.68 These findings align with my
first hypothesis, as they suggest the other usual suspects were unlikely to have substantially
increased voter turnout in the 2002 election.

After an analysis of the most significant variables influencing voter turnout, I find no evidence
that any of these extraneous factors significantly suppressed turnout in 1998 or stimulated

Foskett & Sherman, 1998

Marcus, 1998
Foskett & Sherman, 1998
Sack, 1998
McGrath, 2002


turnout in 2002. While the many external variables inherent in these election cycles do not
permit me to make certain conclusions, the available data suggests no excuses absentee voting
did increase voter turnout in the 2002 election. The absence of absentee vote data from 1998
prohibits me from drawing any inferences as to what extent absentee votes totals may have
influenced the difference in overall vote totals in these two election cycles. However, the pattern
of significant increase in absentee voting that took place between 2002 and 2010 (as seen in
figure two) indicates the growing popularity and influence of no excuse absentee voting.
Moreover, this data also sheds light on the potential validity of my second hypothesis.

The 2006 election subjects my second hypothesis to many analytical difficulties. The
comparatively low turnout of the election may be attributed in large part to the absence of a
statewide senatorial election. However, the 1994 midterm election in North Carolina also did not
involve a senate race and produced a turnout of 1,533,728 votes as 42 percent of those registered
participated.69 This analysis suggests it is unlikely that the senate candidate hypothesis explains
the ten percent drop in turnout between 2002 and 2006. However, 2010, an election with a
senatorial office on the ballot, provides a better case in which to examine the validity of my
second hypothesis.

The 2010 race featured Incumbent Republican Richard Burr against Democratic
challenger and former North Carolina Secretary of State Elizabeth Marshall. Despite the
prominence of both candidates, the election was not particularly competitive. Senator Burr
defeated Marshall with 54.81 percent of the vote and a vote margin of 312,972.70 The election
69 North Carolina Secretary of State
70 U.S. Election Atlas


also possessed two ballot initiatives related to various funding measures,71 however, these most
likely possessed no effect on turnout. While the incumbent-challenger dynamic and turnout
percentage of registered voters closely parallels the senatorial election of 1998, the absence of a
competitive election likely suppressed turnout to a significant extent. As seen in figure two,
while rates of voter participation among registered voters declined back to pre-reform levels, no
excuse absentee voting more than tripled between 2002 and 2010. This indicates that despite
rising awareness and popularity of the measure, no excuses absentee voting did not significantly
increase voter turnout over the course of several election cycles.

The data examined supports my second hypothesis by suggesting the significant decline in voter
turnout between 2002 and 2006 is not fully explained by the factors I analyzed. As with
hypothesis one, none of the extraneous variables examined can fully account for the ten
percentage point drop in turnout in 2006 or the three percent difference in turnout between 2002
and 2010. While certainty cannot be established, this analysis indicates no excuse absentee
voting did (at least partially) influence an initial spike in electoral participation that subsequently
declined back to pre-reform levels in later election cycles.
Midterm election year

Votes cast

Percent of those registered

who voted
FIGURE 1 (data provided by North Carolina Sec. of States Office)
After the implementation of no excuses absentee voting following the 1998 election, North
Carolina experienced an uptick in the percent of those registered voting. This effect was short
lived, as overall vote totals declined in 2006 before increasing once again in 2010. While the
71 Ballotpedia


decline in vote totals in the 2006 election was much more drastic than expected (indicating the
influence of other variables), this data parallels the trends outlined in both of my hypotheses.
Midterm election year

Absentee votes cast

Percent absentee votes

comprise of total votes
N/A (data no available)
N/A (data no available)
FIGURE 2 (data provided by North Carolina Sec. of States Office)
While no data on either the number of absentee votes cast or the percent absentee votes
compromised of the overall vote total in 1998 is available, the absentee voting figures from 2002,
2006 and 2010 clearly illustrate an increasing trend in the use of no excuses absentee voting.
Despite this popularity, an increase in absentee voting did not correlate with an overall increase
in the percent of those registered voting.
Midterm election

Competitive senatorial
election (within ten


gubernatorial election
(within ten points)

Moral/ideological issues
or ballot initiatives

Few of the external variables analyzed were present in the examined election cycles. While the
1998 and 2002 North Carolina elections experienced competitive senatorial races, gubernatorial
elections were not a factor in any of the midterm election cycles between 1998 and 2010. The
absence of these turnout influencing variables likely increased the effectiveness of my analysis, as
fewer factors were present to affect voter turnout in these election cycles.

Case Study: Vermont

Vermont instituted no excuse absentee voting in 1993 and provides data related to overall
vote and absentee vote totals for each election cycle between 1994 and 2002. While vote totals
have grown since the implementation of no excuse absentee voting, the percent of registered
voters participating has declined substantially (as illustrated by figure one). With two senatorial



races and four gubernatorial elections represented in the four midterm elections examined, the
resulting data suggest hypothesis one is incorrect. However, as with the previous analyses, these
elections necessitate further examination.

Numerous variables with the potential to influence voter turnout coincided in the 1990
and 1994 elections. While no incumbent ran in the 1990 gubernatorial race, the election did
produce a competitive contest. Attempting to replace Democratic Governor Madeleine Kunin
who was criticized for her economic policies,72 Republican and former Governor Richard
Snelling defeated Democratic State Senator Peter Welch with a margin of 12,219 votes or 5.78
percent.73 By contrast, the 1994 election featured both a gubernatorial and senatorial race that
produced mixed results. Despite polls showing the candidates within one percentage point of
each other,74 Incumbent Republican Senator Jim Jeffords defeated Democratic challenger Jan
Backus in a competitive contest by 9.7 percent.75 In the 1994 gubernatorial election, Incumbent
Democrat Howard Dean received 68.69 percent of the vote,76 easily defeating Republican
challenger David Kelley and Independence party candidate Thomas Morse. While one might
expect that reelection campaigns for an incumbent senator and an incumbent governor may cause
an increase in electoral participation, this was not the case as turnout fell by over three percent.
The competition of the 1990 gubernatorial election (when viewed in comparison to the
competitive 1994 senatorial race) fails to explain this significant drop off in voter turnout
between 1990 and 1994 and thus casts doubt on the validity of hypothesis one.


Kurtz & Rich, 1990

U.S. Election Atlas
Russakoff, McAllister & Balz, 1994
U.S. Election Atlas
U.S. Election Atlas


An analysis of the issues discussed in 1990 and 1994 also does little to support the claims of my
first hypothesis. While economic issues and a rapidly inflating state debt dominated political
debate in the 1990 gubernatorial election,77 health care represented the most prominent issue in
the 1994 gubernatorial election.78 Despite the differences in subject matter, neither health care
nor the economy represents a unique or moral issue one would expect to significantly stimulate
turnout in a midterm election cycle. Two initiatives related to prison bail amounts and revisions
of the state constitution to utilize more gender-inclusive language did appear on the ballot in
1994.79 However, any possible voter mobilizing effects these initiatives enacted only further
contradict the claims of hypothesis one by suggesting the vote total was actually higher than
what one would expect.

This examination of turnout influencing variables only solidifies my earlier suspicion that no
excuses absentee voting did not increase turnout in the first election cycle following reform.
Judging by the presence of a senatorial and gubernatorial contest in 1994, one would expect a
sizeable increase, not decrease, in voting turnout after the incumbent-less governors race of
1990. The 1998 and 2002 elections provide further insight into this finding while also
questioning the validity of my second hypothesis. As was the case with Iowa, the low turnout in
these two election cycles likely results from other influencing factors.

The decline in voting percentage of registered voters between the 1994 and 1998/2002
election cycles in Vermont initially appears to show some support for my second hypothesis.
77 The New York Times, 1990
78 Judi Hasson, 1994
79 Ballotpedia


However, when examined more thoroughly, the analysis of these elections suggests extraneous
variables significantly influenced and suppressed electoral participation. The overall lack of
competition in the 1998 election most likely contributed to the low turnout rate. Incumbent
Governor Howard Dean won reelection by 14.53 percent in 1998 while Incumbent Democratic
Senator Patrick Leahy received 72.20 percent of the vote.80 Moreover, the absence of any serious
form of competition at any point during Senator Leahys reelection campaign likely suppressed
turnout. For instance, Leahys Republican challenger, Fred Tuttle, was a seventy-nine year old
retired Dairy farmer with no political experience81 who even eventually endorsed Leahy.82 While
more competitive than both of these races, the gubernatorial election of 2002 failed to stimulate
significant interest despite the closeness of the race (within two percent).83 Neither candidate in
the incumbent-less race reached the necessary fifty-percent figure to win outright and the
election was consequently decided upon by the state legislature.84 Furthermore, no particularly
polarizing or ideological issues emerged in either election cycle as the economy continued to be
a major focus of discussion.85 All in all, the analysis illustrates a lack of voter mobilizing factors
that most likely explain the low turnout in these election cycles. This examination, along with the
overall lack of evidence supporting my first hypothesis, refutes the validity of my second

Despite the increasing popularity of no excuses absentee voting throughout the twelve-year time
interval, none of the examined elections illustrate significant support for either hypothesis. The

U.S. Election Atlas

Anthony, 1998
Pear, 1998
U.S. Election Atlas
The New York Times, 2002
McDonald, 2002


decrease in voter turnout percentage throughout the twelve year time interval suggests no excuse
absentee voting at best produced a negligible effect on electoral participation. While this
decrease in the percentage of registered voters participating may be an anomaly or part of a more
complicated trend, my analysis of Vermont does not find evidence for any significant
relationship between overall turnout and no excuse absentee voting.
Midterm election year

Votes cast

FIGURE 1 (data provided by Vermont Sec. of States Office).

Percent of those registered

who voted

An overall declining trend of voter turnout took place between 1990 and 1998 before stagnating
in 2002. While vote totals increased (at least marginally) in every election cycle, the percent of
those voting declined after the implementation of no excuses absentee voting following the 1990
midterm election. This data, in a fashion similar to Iowa, initially appears to refute both of my
Midterm election year

Absentee votes cast

FIGURE 2 (data provided by Vermont Sec. of States Office).

Percent absentee votes

comprise of total votes

A significant increase in both absentee vote totals and the percent absentee votes comprise of
overall vote totals took place after the implementation of no excuses absentee voting., This
increase in absentee voting did not correlate with an increase in the percent of those registered
that voted. While this uptick in absentee voting is notable, Iowa and North Carolina experienced
much more significant increases in absentee voting.
Midterm election

senatorial election
(within ten points)

gubernatorial election
(within ten points)

issues or ballot





The midterm elections examined between 1990 and 2002 did not experience many of the three
turnout influencing variables I analyzed. The presence of competitive gubernatorial or senatorial
elections in 1990, 1994 and 2002 may have influenced turnout. The absence of these factors in
1998 may partially explain the comparatively low turnout percent of registered voters when
compared to 1990 and 1994, however, 2002 produced similar results to 1998 despite experiencing
a competitive gubernatorial contest.

My case studies, aligning with much of the existing literature on convenience voting
reforms, unfortunately result in conflicting conclusions. I cannot with any certainty establish a
relationship between no excuse absentee voting reform and voter turnout in midterm election
cycles. Despite the encouraging examination of North Carolinas midterm elections, Vermont
refuted both of my hypotheses while Iowa produced conflicting results. These findings mean I
cannot make any definite conclusions regarding the effect of no excuses absentee voting reforms
in midterm election cycles. I can, however, say that no excuses absentee voting represents an
increasingly popular and utilized measure in all the states I examined, and that states should
consider adopting similar measures simply for the voting convenience it affords citizens.

There are a few possible explanations for my findings. One is that the conflicting nature
of my results suggests other turnout affecting variables or political factors unique to an


individual state may have influenced the impact no excuses absentee voting had on turnout.
Additionally, it is also possible that, particularly within Iowa and Vermont, the data indicates an
overall trend of declining voter turnout between 1990 and 1998 that superseded any voter
stimulating effects induced by no excuses absentee voting. Perhaps the most likely conclusion, it
is also possible that no excuses absentee voting possesses no relation to voter turnout in midterm
elections whatsoever, and that other variables are to blame for the variations in turnout examined.

If I were to conduct this my research project again, I would expand both the number of
states involved in my analysis and the election years examined so as to recognize more voting
trends and patterns. Many of the previous studies on the effects of convenience voting reforms
have taken course over the span of twenty or more years, and thus possess a more reliable sample
of data to examine.86 These long-term studies will continue to become more feasible as time
passes and more election cycles impacted by no excuses absentee voting reform may be
examined. Additionally, incorporating an approach involving more statistical analysis (as done
by some previous researchers) represents a more effective means for controlling and quantifying
the impact of turnout influencing variables.

As a whole, my study illustrates the numerous and complicated variables influencing voter
turnout and the difficulty political scientists have had in formulating accurate theories and
models of turnout. No excuses absentee voting and convenience voting reforms, while
increasingly popular among voters across the United States, represent one aspect of these
variables that necessitates further analysis in relation to voter turnout. Often touted as an
essential virtue of Democracy, voting remains a surprisingly complex and difficult process to
86 Gronke, Galanes-Rosenbaum & Miller, 2007; Fortier, 2006


accurately study. Future research should recognize these limitations, while also striving to
formulate a more comprehensive and encompassing theory of voter turnout.

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