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Turning Out to Vote: The Costs of Finding and Getting to the Polling Place

  • HENRY E. BRADY (a1) and JOHN E. MCNULTY (a2)

Could changing the locations of polling places affect the outcome of an election by increasing the costs of voting for some and decreasing them for others? The consolidation of voting precincts in Los Angeles County during California's 2003 gubernatorial recall election provides a natural experiment for studying how changing polling places influences voter turnout. Overall turnout decreased by a substantial 1.85 percentage points: A drop in polling place turnout of 3.03 percentage points was partially offset by an increase in absentee voting of 1.18 percentage points. Both transportation and search costs caused these changes. Although there is no evidence that the Los Angeles Registrar of Voters changed more polling locations for those registered with one party than for those registered with another, the changing of polling places still had a small partisan effect because those registered as Democrats were more sensitive to changes in costs than those registered as Republicans. The effects were small enough to allay worries about significant electoral consequences in this instance (e.g., the partisan effect might be decisive in only about one in two hundred contested House elections), but large enough to make it possible for someone to affect outcomes by more extensive manipulation of polling place locations.

Corresponding author
Henry E. Brady is Class of 1941 Monroe Deutsch Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, 210 Barrows Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720 (
John E. McNulty is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Binghamton University, State University of New York, Binghamton, NY 13902 (
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American Political Science Review
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