New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity – "Mentiritas or Little White Lies?: Ethnic-related Differences in Vote Overreporting"

Jan 18, 2007

Ricardo Ramírez, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Southern California, speaker; commentators Vincent Hutchings, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Michigan; J. Mark Hansen, Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor, Political Science and the College, and Dean of Social Sciences, University of Chicago. Co-sponsored and made possible by the Maurice Falk Fund.

Ethnic minority groups, such as Latinos and Asian Americans, comprise the fastest growing segment of the United States population, and ascertaining these groups' political preferences has become an increasingly important concern of policymakers and scholars. So has the question of why Latinos, the largest number of immigrants within the electorate, do not vote in proportion to their numbers. While there has been increased media attention to and polling of these groups since the 2000 election, predicting their preferences has proven to be difficult. Post-election polling data from the 2004 Presidential election, for example, showed that Latinos supported George W. Bush over John Kerry by 44 percent but the pre-election data had indicated that Latinos supported Democrats by 30 to 35 percent. For Asian Americans, the post-election data conveyed an approximate 40 percent support for Bush as compared to pre-election data suggesting about 35 percent. Conventional theories of political participation attribute discrepancies between pre-election and post-election data in part to vote overreporting – people reporting that they voted when, in fact, they did not. These theories, Prof. Ricardo Ramírez argued in the sixteenth session of the Division of U.S. Studies' New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity series, do not accurately account for the overreporting rates of minority groups, and may not aid our understanding of why some minority members of the electorate do not vote.

The dearth in the number of polls targeting Asian Americans and Latinos' political interests notwithstanding, Prof. Ramírez described polls conducted by mainstream groups such as the Voter News Service, Gallup and the Annenberg Public Policy Center as failing to capture the political preferences of Latinos and Asian Americans. Prof. Ramírez speculated that conventional polls may be limited by the lack of multilingual interviewers and a focus on categories too broad to capture an adequate representation of Asians and Latinos in their samples. Generally, Prof. Ramírez noted, mainstream surveyors operate under the assumption that the factors predicting political patterns of white Americans also apply to other groups. For example, many surveyors assume that the overreporting rates for whites correspond to the overreporting rates for Asian Americans and Latinos, and so they rarely undertake the time-consuming and costly route of voter validation (searching the voter registration records to ensure that the people surveyed by telephone are the ones who actually voted).
Voter validation poses several challenges for pollsters, according to Ramírez. They must grapple with the varying quality of voter registration records from state to state, the lack of standardized validation methods among pollsters, and the possibility of validator errors. To assess the impact of overreporting on Asian and Latinos political participation models as compared to more traditional models, Ramírez and his colleagues conducted a 2004 multilingual post-presidential election survey of registered voters in Los Angeles County, California, which was chosen because of its diverse population and reliable voter records. The survey was completed within three weeks after the election, which reduced the likelihood of false reports. It utilized an extensive voter validation procedure, which included checking voter registration records against consumer databases, asking several identifying questions of the respondents and having only one person responsible for validations.

Ramírez found that existing theories based on the political behavior of white voters do not necessarily apply to the political behavior of emerging populations. Whereas the accepted model assumes that political participation is a function of age and income, Ramírez' survey results suggest that political efficacy (the belief that one's vote can make a difference) and being a registered Democrat are stronger predictors for Latinos. The results for Asian Americans were different from those for both the white and Latino citizens, as being a Democrat was not a significant factor in Asian American participation. In exploring the extent of overreporting among Latinos in his survey, Ramírez found that the older, native-born, English-speaking respondents were doing more vote overreporting than the expected recently naturalized and non-English speaking respondents. Factors contributing to overreporting by Asian Americans were similar to those found in surveys of white voters.

Both commentators praised Ramírez for his efforts in this study. Multiracial and multiethnic analyses of political surveys, Prof. Vincent Hutchings noted, are a rarity in the political science field. Knowing the extent of voter turnout, Dean John Mark Hansen commented, is crucial to our understanding of how immigrant groups are integrating socially. Hansen noted, however, that the very factors that encourage voter turnout, such as voting being the socially favored activity, may also influence people to overreport – to feel that they must demonstrate their social responsibility by claiming to have voted when they have not done so. Perhaps, he suggested, we should be asking what causes voters to intend to vote, so as to enhance the relevant stimulus. Hutchings wondered whether the results found in L.A. County correspond to the rest of the country. He also thought we might explore the question of why, if it is indeed the case that education has no effect on either turnout or reporting of minority groups but is a positive indicator for white voters, that the difference exists. Both discussants concluded by underscoring the importance of further validation studies in understanding the political behavior of emerging U.S. populations.

Drafted by Acacia Reed

Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129