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ASU Ph.D. Concludes Voter Suppression Didn’t Happen in Boone Elections, Dems Call Study ‘Misleading at Best’

Update: Scroll below to see back-and-forth responses following initial article. Latest update occurred Thursday evening. 

By Jesse Wood

Dec. 11, 2013. An ASU professor in the Department of Government and Justice Studies recently completed a study that concludes “vote suppression for political gain … didn’t happen” in the wake of changes enacted by the Republican-led Watauga County Board of Elections for the recent municipal elections in Boone.

George Ehrhardt, a registered Republican and advisor to the Appalachian State College Republicans, conducted the study that is dated December 2013 and recently spoke about the 2013 elections at a local GOP meeting.

Local Democrat organizers said the “March to the Polls” through downtown Boone two weeks before Election Day was intended to show support for voting rights of college students that, they say,  were suppressed by Republicans in charge. Photo by Jesse Wood

Ehrhardt teaches research methods, involving mostly statistics, to political science students and for several years has used voter data from the Watauga County Board of Elections office “to give students a hands-on experience of what real-life data work involves,” he said, adding that students were learning how to formally scribe quantitative results as the election was coming to a close.

The beginnings of the study started with a curiosity, Ehrhardt said, adding that he really began delving into the numbers after cries of voter suppression “seemed strange” in light of the Democratic sweep of the Boone Town Council and mayoral races.

In August, the Republican majority on the Watauga County Board of Elections initially voted to combine three Boone precincts into one super precinct that would have had nearly 10,000 voters; eliminate polling precincts on the college campus of ASU; change the location of New River 3 precinct; and limit early voting to only the courthouse. In the end, the super precinct never came to be and an Election Day polling site was eventually restored on the campus of ASU. Though the changes weren’t as drastic as first proposed, Democrats continued to cry foul very loudly.

In his study, which has been, of course, praised by members of the Watauga County Republican Party and deemed – at first glance – “misleading at best” by Jesse Presnell, third vice chair of the Watauga County Democratic Party, Ehrhardt cited a post-election quote from Mayor-Elect Andy Ball in The Nation: “This result in some ways speaks to the visceral reaction people have when you try to take people’s voting rights away.”

That quote relates to one of the five claims from opponents of the recent changes to the local elections that Ehrhardt sought to discredit in the study. 

Ehrhardt said he used voter data provided by the Watauga County Board of Elections office to test these five claims:

  • 1. These changes will suppress voter turnout in Boone
  • 2. The change in the Boone 2 precinct location will suppress student turnout (from Plemmons Student Union to Legends)
  • 3. The change in the New River 3 precinct location will suppress turnout (from National Guard Armory to Mutton Crossing)
  • 4. Changes to one-stop voting will suppress the vote
  • 5. Activism about vote suppression stimulates voting among the voters supposed to be suppressed

To measure any change in voter turnout, Ehrhardt compared the 2013 election with the 2009 election. He didn’t use data from the 2011 election because the Boone elections that year weren’t competitive and turnout was “artificially low.”

“The 2009 election is the nearest contested municipal election, offering the closest comparison for 2013,” Ehrhardt wrote in the study.

Although he is a Republican, Ehrhardt wrote in an email that the “simplicity of the analysis makes it very hard to bias. Except for Brushy Fork – where the numbers are too low to be meaningful – EVERY precinct increased in both turnout and early voting.  I don’t see how anyone could see that as voter suppression no matter what party they support.”

While you can read the entire study below or by clicking here, Ehrhardt concludes that:

“From the standpoint of increasing political participation, the 2013 election rules proved superior to the former system. Voter turnout increased across the board, even in both precincts with new polling places. One-stop voting also increased under the new system. Correlation does not prove causation, of course, and this analysis simply shows correlation. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is no evidence of the new system suppressing voter turnout. While that may surprise some in Watauga County, this analysis matches prior research by political scientists elsewhere in the country…

“What does this mean for the future? While some may continue to use a rhetoric of vote suppression for political gain, the real story is that it didn’t happen. Instead, the political science literature suggests that those truly interested in maximizing voter turnout should turn their attentions to other issues. For example, low quality polling places (confusing signage, poor lighting, poor parking, etc.) have a demonstrable negative effect on turnout. Relatedly, the polling context can also affect voting; polling at schools or churches, for example, increases support for ballot measures relating to those institutions. Providing unbiased, high-quality polling locations is a cause that both parties should support.”

Anne-Marie Yates, chair of the Watauga County Republican Party, who has said from the infancy of these changes that they were enacted for the convenience of all voters, yesterday reiterated the same notion and added that “the numbers speak for themselves.”

“Despite Democrat cries of voter suppression, early voting numbers were higher than ever for a municipal election and the movement of the Boone 2 precinct to Legends resulted in greater turnout than when the precinct was at the student union. We look forward to future elections when, it is hoped, early voting can be made convenient to residents in the rural areas of the county and not just to downtown Boone voters,” Yates said in a prepared statement.

Bill Aceto, secretary of the Watauga County Board of Elections and one of the two Republican members voting for the many changes, wrote in an email: “The 3rd party study from a Dr. of political science proves that the narrative of voter suppression is simply false.” 

Jesse Presnell, third vice chair of the Watauga County Democratic Party, who called the study “misleading at best,” received a copy of the study on Tuesday afternoon. He said in an email that the Democratic Party intends to respond in detail after it has a chance to essentially recreate the study.  

“Unfortunately, this will take us a few days because neither our own data, nor the numbers provided to us by the local Board of Elections, nor the election data provided on the State Board of Elections website in any way match the ones Dr. Ehrhardt offers as compelling analysis to back up his assertions,” Presnell said. “Plus Dr. Ehrhardt apparently misread most of the sources he cited in his footnotes since they conclude in many cases the exact opposite of what Dr. Ehrhardt says they do. You don’t need a doctorate to know that voting in a nightclub [Legends] without adequate heating or parking is a bad idea.” 

Update – Thursday afternoon:

Ehrhardt responds to Presnell’s comments: 

“No data are ever perfect.  Using several different data sets put out by different people at different times makes discrepancies inevitable, and this report is no exception.   This is especially true when they are at different levels of analysis (precinct versus individual).  Finding trivial differences is, well, trivial.

The key questions are whether they are large enough to matter, and if so, which data should we use?    For example, I found two different figures available for 2009 voter registration, but switching numbers only results in a 0.1% change in calculated turnout–not enough to matter.  The same is true with vote totals in 2013, but again, too small to matter substantively.  Other discrepancies come from my choices about which numbers to use.  For example, my Table 1 includes numbers from Blowing Rock since they can early vote in Boone, and the SBoE numbers for Boone voters alone are different–again, the question is whether this matters.  The SBoE numbers still show an increase in turnout, so that data supports my conclusion as well.

I do make mistakes and I welcome corrections in a spirit of finding the best way to administer elections in Watauga County.  But those corrections need to clearly show two things: a) how they change the substantive conclusions, not just numbers in a table, and b) why the alternative data is superior to the one I used in the original report.”

On a separate issue…

“Mr. Presnell asserted that I misread the literature.  I encourage everyone to read the original articles–they’re all good examples of political science research–and decide for themselves.  For people without access to ASU databases I put links to all 7 articles on my web page (http://www.appstate.edu/~ehrhardtgc/).”

Update -Thursday afternoon: 

Presnell and O’Keefe respond:

Ian O’Keefe, a field director for the Watauga County Democratic Party, and Presnell respond in-depth to the Ehrhardt’s study HERE.  In their three-page response, O’Keefe and Presnell say that Ehrhardt’ “grossly misinterpreted data” in his study. 

Update – Thursday evening:

Ehrhardt responds: 

On the evening of Thursday, Dec. 12, Ehrhardt responded to Presnell’s and O’Keefe’s “three broad criticisms” and “personal” attacks in a five-page response. Earlier on Thursday, Presnell and O’Keefe drafted a more detailed response that is linked above. 

“If the Democratic Party truly wants to make voting in Watuaga County the best, most inclusive that it can be, it needs to replace unsupported assertions and personal insults with thoughtful analyses and dialogue,” Ehrhardt wrote in his conclusion. 

Click HERE read Ehrhardt’s response. 


Also, see what the local liberal and conservative blogs have to say about this study: Watauga Watch and A Watauga Conservative. They offer, of course, completely different takes on the issue. 

 Scroll below or click here to see study. 

Rule changes and turnout in 2013 Watauga Elections