Monday, November 12, 2018

Oconee County Voters Had Disproportionate Influence On Outcomes Of Local Races For Georgia General Assembly

***High Turnout The Explanation***

In terms of number of registered voters, Oconee County is smaller that all four of the counties with which it shares legislative districts for the General Assembly in Atlanta.

In last Tuesday’s elections, however, a higher percentage of Oconee County voters cast a ballot than in any of those other four counties.

As a result, Oconee County voters had inordinate influence on the election outcomes in the races won by Bill Cowsert in the 46th Senate District, by Houston Gaines in the 117th House District, and by Marcus Wiedower in the 119th House District. All are Republicans.

In the 119th House District, Oconee County’s high vote turnout in comparison with Clarke County’s almost certainly produced Wiedower’s victory.

In that race, Clarke County voters not only turned out in low numbers, but many of them skipped the race between Wiedower and incumbent Democrat Jonathan Wallace, giving Oconee County voters even greater influence on the election outcome.

Differential turnout rates also explain how Oconee County voters helped Republicans capture the two House seats they lost to Democrats a year ago.

Detailed Analysis

Oconee County traditionally has high turnout rates at elections.

In the election on Tuesday, 75.5 percent of Oconee County’s active registered voters cast a ballot.

Two years ago, in 2016, 85.1 of Oconee County’s voters went to the polls in November when Donald Trump was elected president. Turnout had been 80.0 percent in 2012 and 84.4 percent in 2008.

Four years ago, in the election comparable to the one last week, 60.8 percent of Oconee County’s active registered voters cast a ballot.

Oconee County’s turnout rate of 75.5 percent on Tuesday compared with 61.5 percent in neighboring Clarke County, 62.8 percent in Walton County, 63.7 in Jackson County, and 57.8 percent in Barrow County.

Senate And House Districts

Those counties are important, because, while all of Oconee County is in the 46th Senate District, the western part of Clarke County and the eastern part of Walton County fill out the district.

Three of Oconee County’s precincts–Athens Academy, Malcom Bridge and Bogart–join the western part of Clarke County, the eastern part of Barrow County, and the southern part of Jackson County in the 117th House District.

The 10 Oconee County precincts not in the 117th House District are in the 119th House District, with parts of Clarke County making up the remainder of the district.

Citizens do not vote as a county block. A vote in Oconee County is the same as a vote in Clarke County in each of these legislative races.

But the counties have some different interests, and a differential turnout rate means that voters in one county–with one set of interests and a higher turnout rate–have more effect than voters in another county with a lower turnout rate.

Earlier Post

In my post on the victories by Cowsert, Gaines and Wiedower on Wednesday morning, I noted the high turnout rate for Oconee County and its likely impact on the election outcome.

Cowsert got 60.4 percent of the vote on Tuesday, and Democratic challenger Marisue Hilliard received 39.6 percent.

Gaines defeated incumbent Democrat Deborah Gonzalez, 53.6 percent to 46.4 percent.

Wiedower defeated incumbent Democrat Jonathan Wallace, 52.8 percent to 47.2 percent.

These figures are slightly different from those I reported on Wednesday morning and are still unofficial. Results won’t be official until tomorrow.

The figures above are based on data I downloaded from the Secretary of State website on Thursday to examine more carefully the impact of Oconee County votes on the outcomes of the three districts.

I looked not only at overall turnout rates in the five counties but also at turnout rates for the legislative races themselves, based on the data file I downloaded on Thursday.

Summary Of Findings

I examined Oconee County’s influence in each of the three elections in a number of ways, all of which lead to the same conclusion.

While Oconee County voters were more likely to vote in the Senate District 46 race than their counterparts in Clarke and Walton counties, Oconee County’s higher turnout rate didn’t influence the election outcome in a significant way.

In House District 117, Oconee County voters outperformed their counterparts in the other three counties in terms of turnout, and Oconee County’s higher turnout offset considerably lower turnout in Barrow and Jackson counties.

The results would have been roughly the same if all four counties had turned out at the same rate, but Gonzalez would have done better–and even could have won--had Oconee County not offset the poor turnout in Barrow and Jackson counties.

In House District 119, the results are even more striking.

Oconee County voters were considerably more likely to vote than were their counterparts in Clarke County.

If citizens in both counties had voted at the same rate, and those who didn’t vote on Tuesday voted in the same way as those who did turn out, Wallace would have won, with 51.3 percent of the vote to Wiedower’s 48.7 percent.

Republican Redistricting

The Republican victories on Tuesday in the two House races reversed Democratic victories in a special election in November of 2017.

And that Democratic victory in 2017 was at the expense of Republicans, who had held both House District 117 and House District 119 before the special election.

That special election was called when Representative Regina Quick in the 117th and Representative Chuck Williams in the 119th stepped down at nearly the same time to be appointed to other positions.

Senate District 46, House District 117 and House District 119 had been created in the Republican controlled legislature in 2011–using 2010 U.S. Census data--to be Republican dominated.

The flipping of the two House seats a year ago was something of a surprise.

Registered Voters In Five Counties

Oconee County’s outsized role in the Tuesday vote can be illustrated through a series of charts I created using the data from Tuesday’s election. I’ll go through the charts in order. (Click on any chart to enlarge it.) (A PDF file of all of the charts is available HERE.)

Clarke County, which has traditionally been Democratic, is the largest of the five counties that contribute voters to Senate District 46, House District 117 and House District 118.

It is divided between two Senate districts and three house districts to diminish its overall impact on the General Assembly.

The exceptional turnout rate of Oconee County in comparison with the other four counties is shown in Chart 2. No other county among the five came close on Tuesday in terms of citizen participation.

Voters don’t necessarily select a candidate in all of the races on the ballot. Not even at the top of the ballot, where Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp were competing in the governor’s race, did all of those who turned out cast a vote on Tuesday.

Senate District 46

Registration is not a constant. It changes as voters move into and out of an area and in response to voter registration drives.

In last Tuesday’s election, Walton County was the dominate part of Senate District 46 with 52,490 of the 122,806 registered voters in the district. Oconee County, entirely in the district, contributed its 27,538 registered voters, or 22.4 percent of the overall registration.

Oconee County, however, had the highest turnout rate among the three counties contributing to the district, based on the actual number of voters cast in that race.

As a result, Oconee County contributed 25.9 percent of the votes in the election.

Cowsert carried Walton with 77.1 percent of the vote and Oconee with 71.9 percent of the vote, while getting only 30.8 percent of the vote in Clarke.

I weighted responses–using the same technique used in surveys to compensate for differential participation rates–to produce an estimate of Cowsert’s vote if all three of the counties had contributed to the vote at the same level as registration.

If voter turnout rate had been the same in all three counties, Cowsert’s vote would have been 59.8 percent, or nearly the same as what he actually received.

House District 117

Clarke County was the dominant part of House District 117 as registration closed for early voting for the Nov. 6 election.

Of the 44,608 active, registered voters in the district, 62.5 percent lived in Clarke County.

Oconee County contributed only 19.7 percent of the registered voters.

Chart 9 shows that Oconee County had a turnout rate, based on votes cast for the Gaines/Gonzalez contest, of 73.3 percent, which is just slightly lower than the turnout rate in the county for the gubernatorial race shown in Chart 3.

For Clarke County, however, the turnout rate dropped from 61.3 percent to 55.7 percent, and Barrow and Jackson showed even sharper declines.

The result is that Oconee County contributed 26.2 percent of the vote while having only 19.7 percent of the registered voters.

Barrow and Jackson counties show the biggest discrepancies between registration and vote, and Clarke County had 52.6 percent of the registration and a just slightly higher 53.2 percent of the vote.

Barrow and Jackson counties gave Gaines just slightly higher percentages of their votes than did Oconee, and Oconee was able to compensate for the low turnout rates in Barrow and Jackson counties.

The weighted estimate of Gaines’ vote, had all four counties had turnout rates reflecting their registration rates and had those who didn’t vote cast ballots in the same way as those who did, would have been 54.1 percent, and Gonzalez would have gotten 45.9 percent.

Those figures are nearly the same as the actual votes shown below in Chart 11.

House District 119

Clarke County was poised, going into the Nov. 6 election, to have greater impact on the election outcome in House District 119 than Oconee County, based on registration.

Clarke County had 22,244 of the district’s 41,015 registered voters, or 54.2 percent.

But only half of those Clarke County registered voters actually cast a ballot in the race between Republican Wiedower and Democrat Gonzalez, compared with 74.8 percent of Oconee County’s voters.

The result was that 55.6 percent of the votes cast in the Nov. 6 election in the 119th House District race were from Oconee County, and 44.4 percent were from Clarke County.

Clarke County went from being the dominant part of the district (by registration) to the minority partner (by vote).

Wiedower got 71.0 percent of the Oconee County vote but only 30.0 percent of the Clarke County vote.

The over-representation of Oconee County votes–relative to registration–resulted in Wiedower’s 52.8 percent vote total, compared with Wallace’s 47.2 percent.

Had the two counties voted proportionate to registration, and the voters who didn’t vote voted in the same way as those who did, Wiedower would gotten 48.7 percent of the vote and Wallace would have gotten 51.3 percent.

In short, Wiedower won because Oconee County voters turned out and Clarke County voters did not.

Special Election Revisited

Turnout rates also help explain how Democrats won and Republican lost the special elections for House District 117 and House District 119 in 2017.

In each of the four counties that contribute to House District 117, more voters were registered for the 2018 election than for the 2017 special election, with the exception of Oconee County.

The data for 2017 come from the official data file for that election available on the Secretary of State web site.

The number of registered voters in House District 117 was considerably higher in 2018 than it had been in 2017, but almost all of that growth was outside Oconee County, with Clarke county contributing the most growth.

In Oconee County, the only thing on the ballot in that special election in 2017 was either the House District 117 or House District 119 race.

In Clarke County, a Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax issue also was on the ballot.

Clarke County had a slightly higher turnout rate–26.1 percent–in the special election in 2017 than did Oconee County, with 22.4 percent. Barrow and Jackson county voters participated at a very low rate.

Oconee County voters chose Gaines rather than Gonzalez in 2017, as did voters in Barrow and Jackson counties. But not enough of the voters in these three counties cast a ballot to offset the votes from Clarke County.

Gaines did better in terms of vote percentage is all four counties–including in Clarke–in 2018 than he did in 2017, but he benefitted from the increased participation in the three counties where he had strong support.

Clarke’s turnout rate in 2018 was at the average for the four counties, Chart 17 shows, and Barrow’s and Jackson’s rates were below average.

So the difference between 2017 and 2018 largely is the result of the high turnout rate for Oconee County.

Registration also grew in House District 119 from 2017 to 2018, with much of that growth in Clarke County.

The part of Clarke County in House District 119 contains a lot of student housing, and it is likely a part of the Clarke County growth is from student registration.

In 2017, Clarke County and Oconee County voters participated in the special election in House District 119 at nearly the same rate, in marked contrast with 2018.

Students would seem to be less likely to go down the ballot and vote in a House race if they turned out to vote for the race at the top of the ticket, since they are relatively unconnected to the House District.

Wiedower did better in 2017 than the three Republican candidates in the special election did combined, both in Clarke County and in Oconee County.

But Wiedower got only 30 percent of the vote in Clarke County.

That, however, was enough to reverse the 2017 election outcome from 2017, when the two counties participated at roughly equal rates

It isn’t possible at this time to know the characteristics of those who registered but did not turn out to vote or who voted at the top of the ticket and not for the House races.

The Secretary of State Office will release a data file at the end of the year that could be used to identify these voters.

The different turnout rates for Clarke County voters in 2018 for House District 117 (55.7 percent) and House District 119 (50.4 percent) are suggestive of the influence of student voters.

Less student housing is in the 117th District than the 119th District.

Lesson Learned

Voter registration is always in flux.

In fact, there is no way to know what percentage of eligible voters in a county is registered, since there is no list of persons 18 years old and older who are citizens.

Usually Census Bureau estimates are used. The Census Bureau counts at present are from 2010.

The 2017 and 2018 elections show that either party can win in House District 117 and House District 119, and registration will play a role in victory.

As important as registration, however, is turnout.

A voter who is registered but doesn’t vote does not help win elections.

That was a key lesson the Republicans in Oconee County learned after the 2017 special election.

Democrats in Clarke County and Oconee County are going to have to learn it as well as they make plans to recapture House District 117 and House District 119.


Xardox said...

"Disproportionate" and "inordinate" are subtly jaundiced words to use in this context. Democrats' organizational tactics far outpaced Republicans' in the 2017 Special Election. Were those words used then?

Lee Becker said...


The point of the post is that Republicans outperformed in the Nov. 6 election based on registration numbers. Out of proportion is correct. Out of the ordinary is correct. There is nothing negative about those words in this context.

I did not use those words in 2017 to describe Democratic turnout because it and Oconee County turnout were proportionate to registration. That really is the central finding of the comparison of the two elections.