Voting: Do Small Counties Matter?

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With the Aug 7th primary voting already fading to a distant memory, it occurred to me that I never bothered to look at the results! Between the Summer Olympics, fabulous recent weather in Seattle, King Felix's coronation, and signs from God, I can hardly be blamed for this minor oversight.

Getting "out" the vote has been a major movement for most of my life it seems. Who can forget "Vote or Die", which I still consider to be the most benevolent of any voter sign-up organization. The stench of partisan agenda is never far from such campaigns....

I grew up on the Eastern side of Washington State, and have spent most of the last decade on the Western side. Party lines are drawn through our state as if by Creation itself. Even "Seattle conservatives" believe the East siders live in an intellectual rain shadow.

Of course, the primary results yielded almost nothing surprising. Since they provided nothing witty nor urbane to be overheard discussing about, I intended to promptly forget about them. That is... until I realized there was interesting data on the results webpage: voter turnout statistics. Jackpot.

The Lazy Metropolis

It has been reported that voter turnout flirted with record low levels this year. Let's take a look...

Washington State historic voter turnout percentages for
gubernatorial races, with 2012 shown in blue.
This history of diminishing turnout is fascinating to me. What could it mean? A population that is steadily becoming lazier? Or perhaps more disenfranchised and disconnected from the political system? It's difficult to say - indeed I can scarcely think of a rigorous way to test such sentiments. Figures such as this certainly tell a strong story though, and give cause to wonder: will voter turnout continue to linearly decline? Will we reach a point of negligible participation in our own governance? (In so much as voting qualifies as participation. Whether the entire machine has been taken over by the bipartisan corporate-backed military industrial complex... or aliens... is an exercise for the reader) 

Looking in detail at the voter turnout for just this year's primary may give another clue to the nature of such low numbers.

Washington State Primary 2012 voter turnout for all 39 counties,
as a function of the number of registered voters per county.
Another intriguing (somewhat weak) trend is found when looking at the 2012 Primary turnout for each county: more populous counties tend to have lower turnout! This is especially fascinating, indicating to me that the more metropolitan people can't be bothered as much to vote. In other words, Urbanization may negatively affect voter turnout.

The story might be that over time people move in to cities (Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, etc), and as they do they lose incentive to vote. Again, whether this is due increased laziness towards politics seems difficult to prove with testable predictions. Considerably more data exists for WA, and it would seem beneficial to conduct such a study in order to reverse this trend.

And with an increasing percentage of people living in cities, we do need to reverse it. If such a model for decreasing voter participation is true, we must learn why.

Little Fish

Along the lines of urbanization discussed above, it is worth considering the impact that the more dutiful counties are having. This question results in my stupid title: Do Small Counties Matter?

Here we have the cumulative distribution of registered voters in WA. The way to read this is that we have sorted each county by the number of voters (left to right), and then added them up one by one. The incredible result is that the four largest counties (Spokane, Snohomish, Pierce, and King) contain more than 50% of the registered voters! (actually 58.9%) Urbanization in Action!

This also means, naturally, they have the majority of the voters. But, didn't we just see that the rural counties had higher turnout? Well, yes. Unfortunately it's almost insignificant...

As you can see, the cumulative distribution of actual votes in the 2012 Primary is nearly the same as the distribution of the voters. Nearly - but not quite the same. The proud sense of civic duty earned the 35 other counties 1.1% more of the total votes.

So, it would seem something worth talking about did come from looking at the election results! Vote or Die: participation is not the worst of evils.


  1. Nice analysis. Something does bear repeating though - your vote counts the same in state-wide races no matter which part of the state you're voting from. The relative influences of each county are only relevant insofar as the voting populations of those counties are often polarized by geography. If candidate A receives a merely modest majority in King County, but Candidate B runs up the margins everywhere else, Candidate B is going to win.

    I suspect much of the difference between the larger and smaller counties is demographic. The large counties have more people living in cities, and voters in cities tend to more likely be younger people or minorities. Those groups have lower turnout rates than the average voting population and it's not just laziness (or probably more accurately, disengagement) that explains this. Those groups tend to be more mobile and individuals could have neglected to update their address or moved out of state since the last election. The voter rolls aren't precisely up to date - and that's a good thing since overzealous removal of voters could result in eligible people being disenfranchised.

    That said, it is true there are tons of folks receiving ballots they just don't mail back. Honestly, I don't know how Washington State could make it any easier to vote, short of online elections. Here's an incentive to get your vote in early though: campaigns have access to the voter database (it's public record) and I suspect Washington State is like Florida where campaigns can also track who has turned in their ballots and who has not, and thus will expend additional resources trying to contact you through mail, phone, door knocks, etc if you haven't returned yours. So if you don't want to be bothered, vote early!

    1. I agree Eddie, WA has made it fantastically easy to vote. You can even register to vote online via Facebook - which, while a bit silly, is certainly easy for Generation Y/Z


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