Want the Real “New” Voter Registration Numbers in Florida?

Matt Dixon of the Florida Times Union, who I think is a fine journalist, had a piece the other day with the headline: Democratic registration all but dries up since new Florida laws.

The column has been picked up several by several outlets, including the New York Times and Rachel Maddow’s Blog, and it has sparked lively discussions in such outlets as Weasel Zippers, Hullabaloo, and Addicting Info.

But Dixon’s figures, which I discussed earlier today here, are wildly off the mark and completely misleading.

Yes, “new” voter registrations are down in Florida, but nowhere near are they as dire as Dixon’s column suggests.

My collaborator Michael Herron at Dartmouth and I have just crunched the numbers, using data from the Florida Department of State voter files created on April 1, 2012 and April 1, 2008.

According to the state’s official records, more than 155k voters registered as Democrats in 2011.  Slightly less than 138k voters registered as Republicans in 2011.

Not surprisingly, given House Bill 1355’s draconian restrictions placed on third party voter registration organizations (3PVROs), which went into effect on July 1, 2011 and frustrated the ability of groups like the League of Women Voters to sign up new voters, registration figures for both parties were down in 2011 compared to 2007 (28.1% fewer Floridians registered as Democrats in 2011 compared to 2007, and 15.5% fewer Floridians registered as Republicans in 2011 compared to 2007).

But these dampened voter registration figures are nowhere near those published in Dixon’s column.

The bottom line: More than 155 thousand voters registered as Democrats and more than 138 thousand voters registered as Republicans in Florida in 2011.  The numbers are down, but that hardly looks like “drying up” to me.

It’s Time to Get the Voter Registration Numbers Correct in Florida

Florida’s controversial election law, HB 1355, which has restricted early voting, made the casting of provisional ballots more likely, and cracked down on third party voter registration organization (3PVRO) efforts to register eligible Florida citizens, is still making news.

Yesterday, Judge Robert Hinkle, a federal judge in Tallahassee who is presiding over the legal action brought forth by the League of Women Voters and the other plaintiffs challenging the constraints and penalties placed on 3PVROs, took a more definitive step in deep-sixing several provisions of Governor Scott’s signature voter-suppression law, ruling that he intends to issue a permanent injunction as soon as the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismisses the state’s appeal of his preliminary injunction that he issued back on May 31, 2012.

Anecdotal evidence from groups sitting on the sidelines in Florida suggests that the law has indeed dampened voter registration across the state.

But how should we measure such a decrease, if indeed there has been one?

Florida Times-Union reporter, Matt Dixon, tried to measure the impact of the law in a story he wrote earlier this week that has gotten a lot of press, including a reprint of his findings in the New York Times and on Rachel Maddow’s Blog.  The headline of his article screams, “Democratic registration all but dries up since new Florida laws.”

But let’s take a closer look at Dixon’s methodology.

According to Dixon’s analysis, between July 1, 2011 and August 1, 2012, the number of registered Democrats statewide increased by only 11,365, compared to increases in Democratic registrations over the 13 months that preceded the 2004 and 2008 elections, which he claims increased an average of 209,425 voters.

Dixon also provides similar numbers of new registrations for Republicans, as show in this chart produced on Maddow’s Blog:

Chart: Florida’s voter-registration collapse

Although voter registration numbers are indeed down in Florida compared with other years, there are serious problems with Dixon’s analysis.

First, it does not measure NEW voters who are registered over the three 13-month periods.  Rather, his analysis looks at the differences in aggregate registration numbers for the two parties, which does not hold constant any increases, or (in fact) decreases in the overall number of registered voters in Florida.  Furthermore, statewide population had increased prior to the two previous elections, but recently has remained flat, decreasing the overall pool of potential new registrants of either party.

Second, voter registration is a daily, ongoing occurrence, and total number of registered Democrats and Republicans Dixon compares over the three spans does capture the possible impact of HB 1355, which went into effect on July 1, 2011. Indeed, his 13-month time-frame includes two months (June & July 2012) when 3PRVROs in Florida were once again registering voters after Judge Hinkle’s preliminary injunction on May 31, 2012.

A much better way to measure the effects of HB 1355 on voter registration numbers in Florida is to do what Professor Michael Herron and I have done in this paper.

I don’t have time to summarize our results, but perhaps these figures might suffice for now:
As we write on page 19 in our paper,
I’ll certainly have more on this later…

Exclusive Empirical Research: “House Bill 1355 and Voter Registration in Florida”

Professor Michael Herron (Dartmouth College) and I have posted a draft of our American Political Science Association annual conference paper, “House Bill 1355 and Voter Registration in Florida,” here.

Here’s the Abstract:

New state laws governing voter registration went into effect in Florida on July 1, 2011. Among the legal changes
promulgated as a consequence of a piece of Florida state legislation known as House Bill 1355 were new registration
requirements for third-party groups like the League of Women Voters and a new oath, warning of prison time and fines,
that voter registration agents had to sign before engaging in registration activities. Such changes raised the implicit
costs that eligible Florida citizens faced when registering to vote, and we show, consistent with this logic, that voter
registrations across Florida in late 2011 dropped precipitously compared to registrations in late 2007. This pattern is
evident among registrants in general, among registrants age 21 and younger, and among the number of individuals
who registered as Democrats as well as the number who registered as Republicans. Outside of House Bill 1355, we
know of no credible explanations for our findings about Florida registration drops in 2011. Our results thus show how
restrictions on the way that third-party organizations register voters can have tangible effects on actual registrations
and, given that registration prior to an election is a civic necessity in Florida, can affect electoral participation.