Michael P. McDonald

Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, and Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Florida
Areas of Expertise:
  • Revitalizing U.S. Democracy
  • State & Local Government
  • Voting

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About Michael

McDonald specializes in the American electoral system. Leading the United States Elections Project, he calculates turnout rates that are widely used by academics, media, and policymakers. As co-leader of the Public Mapping Project – an effort to increase transparency and public participation in redistricting – he helped develop DistrictBuilder, open-source web-based redistricting software. He has worked to improve election administration through projects with the Federal Voting Assistance Project and the Pew Center for the States, among others. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Non-Profit Voter Engagement Network, the largest source of nonpartisan resources to help nonprofits integrate voter engagement into their ongoing activities and services.



"The Myth of the Vanishing Voter" (with Samuel Popkin). American Political Science Review 95, no. 4 (2001): 963-974.
Shows how the apparent decline in voter participation in national elections since 1972 is an illusion created by using the Bureau of the Census estimate of the voting-age population as the denominator of the turnout rate. We construct a more accurate estimate of those eligible to vote, from 1948-2000, using government statistical series to adjust for ineligible but included groups, such as noncitizens and felons, and eligible but excluded groups, such as overseas citizens. We show that the ineligible population, not the nonvoting, has been increasing since 1972. During the 1960s the turnout rate trended downward both nationally and outside the South. Although the average turnout rates for presidential and congressional elections are lower since 1972 than during 1948-70, the only pattern since 1972 is an increased turnout rate in southern congressional elections. While the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, the lower turnout rate of young voters accounts for less than one-fourth of reduced voter participation.
Numerical Issues in Statistical Computing for the Social Scientist (with Jeff Gill and Micah Altman) (John Wiley and Sons, 2003).
Demonstrates the widespread sensitivity of the results of statistical analysis in social science to hidden computational choices and to measurement error. We develop methods to test statistical results for robustness to algorithm choice, software implementation, and measurement error.
The Marketplace of Democracy: Electoral Competition and American Politics (edited with John Samples) (Brookings Institution Press, 2006).
Discusses all aspects of American democracy, considering the historical development, legal background, and political aspects of a system that is supposed to be responsive and accountable yet for many is becoming stagnant, self-perpetuating, and tone-deaf.
"Portable Voter Registration" Political Behavior 30, no. 4 (2008): 491-501.
Finds that statewide registration portability – permitting registrants who move anywhere within a state to transfer their registration and vote on Election Day at their new polling place – increases turnout rates among movers by 2.4% points. The effect is similar among movers living in EDR states, suggesting that about a quarter of the beneficial turnout effect of EDR is realized by recent movers. Yet, movers are still less likely to vote even where these policies are present. These findings further challenge existing literature that finds that reregistering is the primary impediment of voting among movers.
"Seeing Double Voting: An Extension of the Birthday Problem" (with Justin Levitt). Election Law Journal 7, no. 2 (2008): 111-122.
Reviews and extends the “Birthday Problem” (an exercise often posed to introductory statistics classes that illuminate the surprisingly high probability that two students in the class share the same birthday) to find the probability that two persons in a given group share an exact birthdate and in a related calculation, the expected number of matching birthdates in a group of a certain size. The authors then apply the Birthdate Problem to a pressing legal and public policy debate concerning allegations of widespread double voting and/or multiple registration to show that these allegations are inflated by not appropriately accounting for the Birthdate Problem, and discuss the implications of the Birthdate Problem for the debate over double voting and the means to address this perceived fraud.
"Perceptions vs. Actual Exposure to Electoral Competition and Political Participation" (with Caroline Tolbert). Public Opinion Quarterly 76, no. 3 (2012): 538-554.
Finds that individuals’ perceptions of electoral competition are related to exposure to a close race in their U.S. House district but do not match reality (previously, few scholars have examined perceptions of electoral competition, and those who have [Ferejohn and Fiorina 1974] find no link between perceptions and voting behavior.) This is because perceptions are colored by “wishful thinking” in that individuals believe their favored candidate will win a close election (Uhlaner and Grofman 1986). Once we control for wishful thinking, we find that perceptions of electoral competition are associated with political participation, while actual levels of competition in one’s House district are not. Although numerous studies find that higher levels of actual electoral competition are associated with increased turnout, this is the first to find evidence of links between actual electoral competition, perceived electoral competition, and voting behavior. Measuring perceptions – and understanding how they differ from reality – may be important for scholars of public opinion and political behavior.
"Public Participation GIS: The Case of Redistricting," (with Micah Altman), Proceedings of the 47th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, IEEE/Computer Society Press, 2014.
Shows how three major factors influenced the effectiveness of efforts to increase public input into the political process through crowdsourcing. First, open electoral mapping tools were a practical necessity to enable substantially greater levels increase public participation. Second, the interest and capacity of local grassroots organizations was critical to catalyzing the public to engage using these tools. Finally, the permeability of government authorities to public input was needed for such participation to have a significant effect.

In the News

Michael P. McDonald quoted on voter fraud claims in Sam Levine, "Trump Voter Fraud Panel Agenda Paints Picture of Election System Rife with Fraud" HuffPost, September 11, 2017.
"Early Voting Stability Despite News Volatility," Michael P. McDonald, Huffington Post, October 30, 2016.
Michael P. McDonald quoted on early voting in Andrew Prokop, "The Presidential Race Has Tightened. Clinton Still Leads. Democrats Should Still Worry." Vox, October 31, 2016.
Michael P. McDonald quoted on early voting in Katie Glueck, "Democrats Go Pedal-to-the-Metal on Early Voting" Politico, November 1, 2016.
"Better Hope the Election's Not Close," Michael P. McDonald, USA Today, November 1, 2016.
Michael P. McDonald quoted on early voting in Kyle Cheney, "Early Voting Reveals Warning Signs for Trump" Politico, October 16, 2016.
Michael P. McDonald's research on Reid Wilson. Michael P. McDonald, "What America’s Smartest Early Vote Expert Sees in the Data," The Hill, October 13, 2016.
Michael P. McDonald quoted on early voting in Hope Yen, "Early Votes: High Interest Buoys Clinton in Key States" Associated Press, September 29, 2016.
"Early Voting Pulling into the Station," Michael P. McDonald, Huffington Post, November 2, 2014.
Michael P. McDonald's research on election day turnout discussed in Reid Wilson. Michael P. McDonald, "Both Parties Poured Big Money into Early Voting. Who’s Got the Edge?," The Washington Post, October 20, 2014.
"Turnout's Not as Bad as You Think," Michael P. McDonald (with Samuel Popkin), The Washington Post, November 5, 2000.
"Pulling Back the Curtain on Redistricting," Michael P. McDonald (with Micah Altman), The Washington Post, July 9, 2010.
"The Revenge of the Moderates," Michael P. McDonald (with Seth C. McKee), Politico, October 20, 2010.
"Using Crowd-Sourced Mapping to Improve Representation and Detect Gerrymanders in Ohio," Michael P. McDonald (with Micah Altman), Tech Tank, Brookings Institution, June 18, 2014.