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Originally published: 2013-12-18 10:58:18
Last modified: 2013-12-18 11:22:50

Analysis sparks debate on Boone voter turnout

by Anna Oakes

An Appalachian State University professor's recent analysis of voter turnout in the 2013 Boone municipal election provoked debate amongst local Republicans and Democrats -- who draw different conclusions from 2013's numbers.

Government professor George Ehrhardt, a registered Republican and advisor to ASU's College Republicans organization, in November and December wrote a nine-page study "evaluating the effects of the 2013 Board of Elections changes."

"There is no evidence of the new system suppressing voter turnout," Ehrhardt concludes.

Local Democratic Party staffers recently published a critique of Ehrhardt's study, alleging he used incorrect voter data and drew incorrect conclusions from cited studies.

The Republican-led Watauga County Board of Elections voted 2-1 in August to eliminate the early voting site on the ASU campus, leaving one early voting site at the Watauga County commissioners' boardroom. The board also moved the Boone 2 precinct polling site from the ASU student union to the Legends nightclub and the New River 3 precinct polling place from the National Guard Armory to Mutton Crossing, a site on Bamboo Road.

The Republican members on the board had previously planned to combine the Boone 1, 2 and 3 precincts into one, but ultimately nixed that proposal. Democrats vocally opposed the changes; the Democratic-led Boone Town Council passed a resolution stating "the changes forced through and proposed by a majority of the new members of the Board of Elections are designed to make voting less convenient for the voters of Boone."

In his study, Ehrhardt said he examined voter turnout data from the Watauga County Board of Elections to test "claims" that the polling place changes would suppress voter turnout.

Overall, voter turnout was higher in 2013 than in 2009 (the last year of a contested Boone Town Council race), so Ehrhardt concludes that the changes did not suppress turnout in Boone. He also concluded that the changes to the Boone 2 and New River 3 precinct polling place locations did not suppress voter turnout because 2013 turnout increased in those two precincts, compared with 2009.

Ehrhardt conceded, however, that in New River 3, "the turnout increase (36 percent) was too close to the average to draw meaningful conclusions." The average turnout change across all Boone precincts was a 41 percent increase, Ehrhardt said.

Early voting numbers also increased from 2009 to 2013 in Boone -- proof, Ehrhardt said, that eliminating the ASU early voting site did not suppress voting.

The study then provides what Ehrhardt calls an "indirect test" of another Democratic Party "claim" -- that activism about voter suppression is what resulted in higher voter turnout numbers in 2013. He includes a post-election quote from Mayor-elect Andy Ball, who said, "This result in some ways speaks to the visceral reaction people have when you try to take people's voting rights away."

Because of an increase in percentages of citizens casting mayoral votes for Democrats -- including in Boone 2, Boone 3 and New River 3 -- Ehrhardt reaches the conclusion that a "backlash" effect did occur. But he also determines that backlash against the polling place changes was not the sole reason for increased voter turnout because turnout increased even in two precincts (Blue Ridge and New River 2) that experienced a decline in the percentage of votes for the Democratic mayoral candidate.

"If the claim that increased voter turnout is solely due to backlash against the Republican-initiated changes, we would only expect to see turnout increases in areas that shifted Democrat," he said.

"From the standpoint of increasing political participation, the 2013 election rules proved superior to the former system," Ehrhardt wrote. "Correlation does not prove causation, of course, and this analysis simply shows correlation."

Watauga County Democratic Party Third Vice Chairman Jesse Presnell and field director Ian O'Keefe recently circulated a three-page document responding to Ehrhardt's report.

The response said Ehrhardt's analysis did not take into account other factors that affect voter turnout, including the level of candidate fundraising, political party involvement and backing of candidates. The response suggested that a comparison with the 2007 municipal election would be a better comparison.

"There was substantially less money spent in 2009 than 2013, and although there was a similar number of candidates in 2009 and 2013, at least two of the candidates in 2009 ran no voter contact campaign whatsoever," the Dems said. "Also similar to 2013, in 2007 there was no early voting offered on ASU's campus."

The response also alleged that Ehrhardt used incorrect numbers for both 2009 and 2013 and that as a result, turnout in the Boone 2 precinct in 2013 matched the 2009 turnout. And, the Dems questioned Ehrhardt's use of cited sources to support his findings: "Dr. Ehrhardt also either misreads or intentionally misrepresents political scientists he claims agrees with him," the response states, giving a couple of examples.

In a subsequent response dated Dec. 12, Ehrhardt, in turn, accused the Democrats of "cherry-picking" quotes from the cited research to support their arguments and said he stood by his citations.

He also acknowledged the possibility of "measurement error," but said any difference in numbers did not alter the substantive conclusions of his study: "my Democratic Party critics offer no evidence of an actual decline in voter turnout."