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Omdahl: Plumbing the 221,000 North Dakotan non-voters

By Staff | Jul 21, 2017

According to Secretary of State Al Jaeger, 590,955 North Dakotans were eligible to vote in the 2016 election but only 349,945 (61.29%) appeared to cast ballots. That means 221,000 were “no shows”. Why?

Researchers at the Pew Research Center report that these non-voters are politically estranged. Their research indicates that nonvoters dislike politics, claim that voting is ineffective, that their one vote doesn’t count and that there is no difference between candidates.

They say they are too busy to vote. In some cases, there are legitimate reasons for missing an election but in most cases it reflects alienation with the process. . However, alienation may not be the right term because alienation suggests nonvoters are interested but frustrated. The fact is they are not interested so they aren’t frustrated.

Look at the profile of those who do vote. Consistent voters have more than high school degrees, have more household income, are older, more successful in their careers, and more community-minded.

We do not have good poll data in North Dakota to evaluate voter participating and nonparticipation but following the suggestion of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the Iraqi War, let’s go to speculation (war) with the facts (army) that we have.

In 2016, the 10 counties with the highest turnout were Billings 84%, Slope 74%, Bowman 74%, Sheridan 74%, Emmons 74%, Kidder 74%, Grant 74%, Logan 73%, McLean 73% and Oliver 72%.

The 10 counties with the lowest turnout were Rolette 40%, Sioux 46%, Benson 46%, Ward 52%, Williams 54%, Stark 54%, Grand Forks 55%, Walsh 56%, Pembina 57% and Mountrail 57%.

So do figures suggest that the voters in the high voting counties had the highest household incomes and the lowest turnout occurred in counties with the lowest household income and highest poverty rate?

The only counties among the 10 with the highest household income that appeared in the top 10 voting counties were Oliver, Slope and Billings. Three out of 10 doesn’t appear to be a strong enough correlation to conclude that household income determines voter turnout.

In fact, three counties among the 10 with the lowest household income Emmons, Grant and Sheridan were among the highest in voting turnout.

When it comes to counties with the highest level of poverty, we find three counties among the top 10 for turnout were among counties with the highest poverty rate Emmons, Grant and McLean.

Does age matter? Four of the counties Sheridan, Emmons, Grant and Logan – with the largest number of persons 65 and over were also among the 10 with highest turnout. So age could have been some influence.

When we look at education, none of the 10 counties with highest educational attainment (some college or more) were in the high turnout list while three counties Sheridan, Kidder, and Logan were among lowest in educational attainment but had the highest turnout. So the relationship between educational attainment and turnout is weak.

On the basis of this skimpy look, it appears that household income, age and education do not explain high voting counties with low household income, high poverty rates, older voters or lower educational attainment. So what brings them to the polls?

My theory is that frontier efficacy, the conviction that everyone can influence outcomes, permeates the electorate at all levels of prosperity, age and education. We are still demonstrating the assertiveness that was necessary to survive in a challenging frontier environment.

(We should point out that the south central “German” counties had higher voter turnout than the rest of the state. All of those Norwegians in Williams, Grand Forks and Minot didn’t score so well. An ethnic dimension.)

Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and former political science professor at UND.

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