A lot of people are excited about recent research suggesting that mobile voting would mean more voters casting ballots. No doubt the premise is correct. If you lower the cost of an activity, you get more of it. Still, there are reasons to be skeptical.
In the third place, the security risks are obvious. In the second place, as regular readers know, I’ve long questioned whether higher turnout leads to better results.
But in the first place, even if mobile voting resulted in a greater number of votes cast, we shouldn’t refer to the result as higher “turnout.” Whatever we might call it, that’s the wrong word.
The notion of voter turnout has long conjured images of crowded polling places, neighbors chatting as long lines shuffle forward. Not all traditions are valuable, but here a bit of etymology teaches an important lesson about democracy.
The Oxford English Dictionary includes several definitions of the word “turnout,” including this: “Those who turn out or assemble for any purpose; an assemblage, muster; also, a turning out or assembling of persons.” The earliest example of this usage is from 1816: “I met with several people here, and had a turn out of population from several of the houses.” I have found no instances during the first half of the 19th century of the use of the word “turnout” to refer to the behavior of voters. But the word had other uses. Some called a strike a “turnout” of laborers from the factory. Others referred to soldiers “turning out” to do their duty.
As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the term was used as a synonym for riot. In 1842, a British newspaper described a mob’s attack on a railroad train out of Leeds: “The turn-outs then went to St. George’s Fields, where we learn that a person exclaimed, ‘Five pounds to the man who knocks the first brick out of the engine-house!’”
Political usage followed shortly thereafter. By the 1850s, the headline “Turn out! Turn out!” routinely preceded advertisements calling on members of a particular party to attend public meetings in support of the ticket. So when, on the eve of the 1860 election, the Chicago Press and Tribune ran an item calling on Republicans to “Turn out!” for a rally headlined by William H. Seward, campaigning as a surrogate for Abraham Lincoln, everyone understood that the invitation was to come together to hear a speech.
The earliest use of I have found of “turnout” in its modern sense — showing up to vote — is an anonymous 1858 pamphlet urging the people of Bedford County, Pennsylvania, to oppose Democrat Wilson Reilly’s effort to win a second term in Congress. After warning of the threats the his party’s policies pose to “the very liberties of the people,” the unknown author adds: “Turn-out and defend them with your votes, and all mankind, posterity and your consciences, will tell you that you have done your duty.” (Reilly lost.)
Two decades later, the term had become a verb synonymous with going to the polls. In 1881, Congress sat to decide Buchanan v. Manning, a challenge to the results of a Mississippi election, where the defeated Republican candidate claimed his voters had been illegally suppressed. An affidavit filed with the record contended that “the republican or negro vote did not turn out on electton [sic] day as fully as usual.” (The election was overturned.)
The use of “turnout” as a noun to describe the number of voters was not far behind. Thus in 18877, the Baltimore Sun praised the “unusually large turnout” for the local Democratic Party primaries. The crowding led to complaints that the contemporary ear will find familiar: “The queues at a number of the polling places were of unusual length, and voters were in line one to two hours before reaching the window.”
By the dawn of the 20th century, the association of “turnout” with “voting” was firmly fixed in the public mind. Nonetheless, a turnout was still understood as a public event, people gathered for a particular purpose.
Thus when the New York Times in 1964 forecast a record turnout on election day, the paper had in mind crowds at actual physical polling places. There’s a reason that during the Civil Rights Movement, photographs of black people braving the elements as the waited on long lines to vote carried such impact. The waiting as much as the voting evinced an in-your-face solidarity, an irrefutable public defiance of the forces arrayed against them.
You can’t capture mobile voting in an image.
The point of the word “turnout” is that it treats voting as not an instant, but an event: that long line, neighbors with neighbors, friends and strangers, all congregating together, whatever their politics or religion or skin color. And there you are, waiting your turn, uncertain whether the person just ahead of you plans to support your candidate or someone else, but knowing nevertheless that the two of you are engaged in the same democratic exercise.
Words change their meanings over time and we’re not stuck with old definitions. Here, however, the old definitions teach an important lesson. Properly understood, “turnout” refers to a mass of people uniting for the same purpose in the same place. The point is not getting large numbers to engage in a particular exercise – like tapping an icon on a screen – but getting large numbers to assemble.
Don’t misunderstand me. Every adult should have the opportunity to vote, without being confronted with invidious barriers aimed at keeping people away from the polls. Our history has seen far too many unjust obstacles, and they’ve yet to vanish entirely.
But going to the polling place and waiting in line amongst neighbors and strangers isn’t a bug in the democratic system. Gathering for the common purpose of casting a ballot is one of democracy’s most appealing and important features.