Impact of Vote Centers?
Several large Texas counties (Harris, Bexar, Dallas) are switching to county-wide polling locations citing lower costs and voter convenience. But, do vote centers boost voter turnout? In this comprehensive study we examine the transition to vote centers in Texas across the several election types. (The article is forthcoming at Research & Politics.)
BACKGROUND: In 2005, the Texas Legislature approved a program (HB 758) for county-level decision making to move from precinct level voting to “vote centers” for the November 2006 elections. Lubbock County was the first participant the program in 2006, replacing the county’s 69 precincts with 35 vote centers (but kept 8 precincts in rural areas). By 2018, 52 Texas counties used vote centers to conduct constitutional amendment, midterm, or presidential elections.
**** TECHNICAL STUFF: To test the impact of vote centers on turnout under distinct elections, we fit a difference-in-difference (DD) fixed effect model with clustered standard errors at the county level. The DD estimator allows us to compare counties before and after the implementation of vote centers by estimating the difference between the observed mean turnout for counties with vote centers and counties with no vote centers before and after a particular implementation year. ****
Do vote centers boost turnout? Using a natural experiment in Texas we find vote centers have a small positive impact on constitutional election turnout (about 4%) but no significant effect on turnout in midterm or presidential elections.
What about counties using the process for longer – do voters adapt gradually? The cumulative impact of vote centers over a longer period of time does have a small positive effect on turnout in constitutional elections (about 4%). There aren’t any long term positive effects detected for midterm or presidential elections. (this could partly be because adoptions by several counties is a fairly recent trend so the long term effects are not set yet).
TAKEAWAY : The results from this article show that lower turnout elections (constitutional) benefit from vote centers more than larger turnout elections (midterm/gubernatorial, presidential). The long term effects are slowly emerging. These results suggest a more cautious assessment is needed when considering the use and impact of vote centers.
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Brandon Rottinghaus is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston