MoCo Dems Who Don’t Vote, Part One

I’m following the lead of my students and heading out of town on Spring Break. Fortunately, Adam Pagnucco has written a series on Montgomery Democrats who don’t vote. Today, I am pleased to present the first part:

General Assembly Democrats have decided to pursue automatic voter registration in this year’s session.  There’s a good policy rationale for it and efforts to increase resident access to voting are generally commendable.  There is also a fair dose of politics here. Democrats are pursuing this because they think it will net them more votes, and Republicans are opposing it for the same reason.  Yet, there’s little evidence in our state that increasing registration will automatically increase votes for Democrats in gubernatorial elections.

Instead of concentrating on people who don’t register, Democrats should look at a different group for the purpose of expanding their turnout: people who register as Democrats but don’t vote.

Why do people register but don’t vote?  Part of the explanation lies in how relentlessly targeted modern political campaigns are.  In a context of scarce resources, campaigns strive to touch voters who a) are likely to actually vote and b) are potentially receptive to the candidate’s message.  That means orienting mail, email, field operations and even social media towards voters with regular histories of voting.  Those voters who vote regularly get inundated with candidate communications.  Those who don’t get much less of it.

Consider me.  I moved to the county in 2003.  I had a long history of voting in D.C. and New York but that didn’t show up in my Maryland voter registration record.  I voted in the 2004 primary and general elections.  In my first state-level election of 2006, only two candidates sent me mail: Hans Riemer and Duchy Trachtenberg, both non-incumbents running for the County Council.  Both had well-financed operations and perhaps they felt they could take a chance on appealing to a wider field of voters than just those who had voted in 1998 and 2002.  County Executive candidates Ike Leggett and Steve Silverman, who raised over $3 million between them, didn’t contact me.

Now, if I was feeling ignored, that didn’t last!  I continued to vote regularly and by 2010, I got lots of mail.  Don’t ask me about 2014.  My recycling can is still recovering.

So what is likely to happen to all the new voters who are automatically registered under the state Democrats’ proposal?  They will probably be ignored by Democratic candidates for state and local office because they don’t have voting histories.  Some of them might vote in presidential elections because information on those candidates is easy to come by.  (Who on Planet Earth has not heard of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?)  But a combination of declining local media coverage and micro-targeted local campaigns will give them no information on local races and lots of them will sit out.

That is exactly what is happening in Montgomery County.  From the 1990 general election through the 2006 general election, voter registration rose from 365,960 to 507,924 – an increase of 39%.  At the same time, the actual number of general election voters rose from 211,199 to 308,429 – an increase of 46%.

Now let’s remember what happened around the end of that time period.  The presidential campaigns of Howard Dean and Barack Obama took voter targeting to a new level with email, data-mining and (later) social media.  Campaigns became much more efficient at reaching small groups of likely voters.  And all of this filtered down into state and local races, especially in MoCo, where so many candidates and campaign staffers have ties to the national level.

This had an impact in Montgomery County.  From the 2006 general election through the 2014 general election, voter registration rose from 507,924 to 634,663 – an increase of 25%.  But the actual number of voters dropped in 2010 and again in 2014.  The 2006 general saw 308,429 voters while the 2014 general saw 267,456 voters – a decline of 13%.  At the same time, the number of MoCo voters in presidential general elections has been rising steadily in every cycle since at least 1990.

What we are witnessing now is a shrinking snowball effect.  As each gubernatorial cycle passes, the pool of targeted voters shrinks as people who vote regularly pass away or move out.  And those without voting histories are ignored by candidates, and don’t vote, and so their numbers grow.

This should be a major concern for both Maryland and MoCo Democrats, because low turnout in MoCo (as well as Baltimore City and Prince George’s) significantly contributed to Larry Hogan’s winning the Governor seat.  More registration won’t fix it.  More efforts to turn out an ever-smaller group of regular Democratic voters won’t fix it.  But communicating with people who are already registered Democrats and who, for whatever reason, aren’t voting just might fix it.

So who are these Democrats who don’t vote?  We’ll find out in Part Two.