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Validation: What Big Data Reveal About Survey Misreporting and the Real Electorate

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 January 2017

Stephen Ansolabehere
Harvard University
Eitan Hersh*
Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520-8209
e-mail: (corresponding author)
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Social scientists rely on surveys to explain political behavior. From consistent overreporting of voter turnout, it is evident that responses on survey items may be unreliable and lead scholars to incorrectly estimate the correlates of participation. Leveraging developments in technology and improvements in public records, we conduct the first-ever fifty-state vote validation. We parse overreporting due to response bias from overreporting due to inaccurate respondents. We find that nonvoters who are politically engaged and equipped with politically relevant resources consistently misreport that they voted. This finding cannot be explained by faulty registration records, which we measure with new indicators of election administration quality. Respondents are found to misreport only on survey items associated with socially desirable outcomes, which we find by validating items beyond voting, like race and party. We show that studies of representation and participation based on survey reports dramatically misestimate the differences between voters and nonvoters.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author 2012. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Political Methodology 


Authors' note: We thank the editors and anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback. For materials to replicate the statistical analysis in this article, see Ansolabehere and Hersh (2012).


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