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SFU prof: Robocalls did suppress voter turnout

A Simon Fraser University economics professor says voters were "demobilized" by robocalls in the 2011 federal election. In a preliminary draft of her report, published on March 8, Dr. Anke S. Kessler argues that voters in non-Conservative polls turned out in fewer numbers in 2011 than they had in 2008.

Her paper, titled "Does misinformation demobilize the electorate? Measuring the impact of alleged 'robocalls' in the 2011 election," is available on her website. It suggests that the drop in turnout did influence the outcome of the election. In the abstract, Kessler writes:

I use within-riding variation in turnout and vote–share for each party to study how turnout changed from the 2008 to the 2011 election as a function of the predominant party affiliation of voters at a particular polling station. I show that those polling stations with predominantly non- conservative voters experienced a decline in voter turnout from 2008 to 2011, and that this effect was larger in ridings that were allegedly targeted by the fraudulent phone calls.

The results thus indicate a statistically significant effect of the alleged demobilization efforts: in those ridings where allegations of robocalls emerged, turnout was an estimated 3 percentage points lower on average.

This reduction in turnout translates into roughly 2,500 eligible (registered) voters that did not go to the polls. The 95%-confidence interval gives a lower bound estimate of 1,000 fewer votes cast in robocall ridings, which is still a sizable effect.

Kessler drew her data from those ridings alleged in late February to have experienced misleading or harassing phone calls. She dropped two ridings: Portneuf-Jacques Cartier, where no Conservative ran in 2008, and Saanich-Gulf Island, where similar calls had been reported in 2008.

After a detailed description of her methodology and findings, Kessler concluded:

The results suggest that, on average, voter turnout in those ridings affected by the demobilization efforts is significantly lower than in the ridings where no automated phone calls have been reported. The point estimate gives 3 percentage points. As such, the effect is considerably smaller than the 50 percent reduction in turnout that Barton (2011) finds.

But since nothing is yet known about the total numbers of voters that actually have received a phone call, if any, those numbers are not comparable. Besides, Barton’s results are based on a framed-field experiment with little consequence of failing to go to the polls and it may be difficult to draw inferences regarding actual elections.

In either case, Barton also reports that pre-election warnings against possible fraudulent messages inoculates voters against misinformation effects, and generally restores voter turnout.

If his findings are taken at face value, the outlook is positive: having been warned, the Canadian electorate should now be guarded against any future attempts at demobilization.

Dr. Kessler's report has been frequently mentioned today on Twitter at #robocalls.

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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