Vote Validation and Possible Underestimates of Turnout among Younger Americans

Vote validation data appended onto survey data is incredibly valuable. Due to the propensity of individuals to lie about whether or not they voted in an election, self-reported turnout is unreliable. Moreover, as that linked Ansolabehere and Hersh 2012 paper shows, this overreport bias is not uniform across Americans of different demographic characteristics, which further precludes any credible use of self-reported turnout in surveys. Checking self-reported turnout against governmental records of whether or not individuals actually voted provides a much more accurate (though not flawless) measure of whether or not someone really voted in an election. I mention that it’s not without flaws because in order to create this metric–validated turnout–respondents to a survey need to be matched to the voter file (each state has one) that contains turnout information on them. This matching process does not always go smoothly. I explored one case of that in my last post (which has since been fixed). Another potential issue was raised on Twitter by political scientist Michael McDonald:

Aside from the topic of this specific discussion, McDonald is making an important broader point that survey-takers who move (have less residential stability) are less likely to be matched to the voter file; even if they turn out to vote, they may not be matched, and thus would show up as non-voters on surveys with vote validation. Younger individuals tend to move more, and so this flaw could impact them most.

I thought it might be interesting to check for evidence of such a pattern with CCES vote validated turnout by age, and compare those estimates against another commonly used data source to study turnout among different demographics: the Current Population Survey (CPS). For the latter data, I pulled two estimates of turnout from McDonald’s website: 1) CPS turnout with a Census weight (which I’ll refer to as “CPS Turnout”) and 2) CPS turnout with a Census weight and a correction for vote overreport bias (which I’ll refer to as “Corrected CPS Turnout”), more detail on which can be found here. I end up with three turnout estimate sources (CCES, CPS, Corrected CPS) across four age groups (18-29, 30-44, 45-59, 60+), all of which I graph below. The key comparison is between CCES turnout and the two CPS turnout estimates. As McDonald describes, the correction to the CPS turnout is important. Therefore, I pay special attention to the Corrected CPS metric, showing the difference between CCES and Corrected CPS turnout estimates in red above the bars for each age group.


These surveys use very different sampling and weighting procedures, so, on average, they likely produce different estimates. If these differences are constant across each age group, then there is likely nothing going on with respect to the movers/youth turnout underestimate theory. However, the difference–the (CCES – Corrected CPS) metric in red–does in fact vary by age. Most vividly, there is no difference in turnout estimate between these two metrics at the oldest age group, for Americans 60 and older. Each metric says about 71 percent of those age 60+ turned out to vote in 2016. However, for each younger age group, CCES vote validated turnout is smaller than the Corrected CPS one. The largest difference (a 12.4 point “underestimate”) curiously appears for the 30-44 age group. This result doesn’t fall seamlessly in line with the youth turnout underestimate theory–which would suggest the younger you go in age group, the larger the underestimate becomes. But the lack of underestimate for the oldest age group–almost surely the most residentially stable of the age groups–compared to underestimates between five and 13 points for the younger age groups is very telling.

I would need to find data on residential mobility/rate of moving by age group in order to confirm this, but it does seem the most likely to move–the youngest three age groups–see a greater difference between a turnout score built from vote validation and a turnout score that doesn’t use vote validation, the CPS. If that’s the case, I think the theory of vote validation missing some movers and thus likely younger Americans (who are actual voters)  is convincing. This notion would fall in line with takeaways from past research similarly looking at the ties between movers, age, and political participation. Thus, the results here shouldn’t be too surprising, but this possible underestimate of youth turnout is something researchers should keep in mind when using surveys that include vote validated turnout, like the CCES. Regardless, this represents just one (potential) drawback amid an otherwise extremely useful dataset for studying political behavior. Every survey has its flaws, but few have a measure of vote validated turnout, which will always prove more reliable than self-report turnout metrics found in typical surveys.

Vote Validation and Possible Underestimates of Turnout among Younger Americans

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