Reports state that the voter turnout in the election was the highest in a century, but that does not alter the fact that voter rates vary significantly around the country. The website of the World Population Review reveals startling variations in state voter turnouts in our just-completed election. (https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/voter-turnout-by-state).
Minnesota had the highest voter turnout at 74.1%, and New Hampshire, Maine, and Colorado were at 70% or above. In contrast, the rate was only 43.3% in Hawaii. Texas, Tennessee, and West Virginia were all between 52% and 50%. Nineteen more states were below 60%.
The rates were calculated as the number of those who voted as a percentage of the Voting Eligible Population. The VEP, the website explained, “includes adults that are of legal voting age, while excluding ineligible felons.”
Even though ineligible felons are counted in the census and their numbers are used to determine the number of seats a state has in the House of Representatives and even though felons are taxed, all states except Maine and Vermont exclude at least some felons from voting. The exclusions vary from state to state. Some, for example, make ineligible people released from prison but still on parole, while other states permit parolees to vote.
The Sunshine State highlighted this situation. By a statewide vote, Florida recently relaxed its lifetime ban on voting by felons, but a controversy with much litigation erupted when the Florida legislature adopted laws that still kept many felons disqualified. The World Population Review reported there were 219,431 ineligible felons in Florida election as of the 2020. That’s as if more than the entire population of Port St. Lucie (population 202,000) could not vote in Florida.
Because of all the attention Florida garnered, I assumed that it had the largest number of ineligible felons. I was wrong. Georgia, with a population of less than half Florida’s, has over 307,000 felons ineligible to vote, while Texas with thirty percent more population than Florida has more than twice as many ineligible felons—480,000. And a surprising collection of states disenfranchise felons on a per capita rate as much or more than Florida, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maryland, New Jersey, Louisiana, Alabama, Kentucky, Arizona, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. We disenfranchise about as many people as the entire population, adult and child, of Kansas. When looking at voter turnout, we should not forget the huge number of people that the states have made ineligible because of a criminal conviction.
Another factor affects the Voting Eligible Population. The VEP definition includes adults, apparently all adults, in a state, but only citizens may vote, even though the official population of a state includes noncitizens. Non-citizens, according to the United States Census Bureau, “include legal permanent residents, temporary migrants, unauthorized immigrants and other resident statuses.” The percentage of non-citizens in the states varies. Numbers I have found report that in 2014 14.1% of California’s resident were noncitizens, while Texas had 10.9% and New York 10.4% noncitizens respectively. In contrast, only 2.0% of Ohio’s residents and 3.0% of Pennsylvanians were noncitizens. More than a half dozen states are below the 2.0% level with West Virginia the lowest at O.8%.
If the Voting Eligible Population includes adults who are not citizens, we have some explanation for the differing voting rates in the states. If everyone who could vote in California did, its turnout would only be 86% while if everyone who could vote in Ohio and Pennsylvania did those states would have turnouts of 98% and 97%.
The state turnout rates, however, do not neatly track the number of noncitizens in the states. For example, Colorado had a 70.0% turnout with 6.1% percent noncitizen residents, while Arkansas had a 52.6% turnout with 3.2% noncitizens. Something more than noncitizens affects the voter turnouts.
The presence or absence of competitive races on the ballot might help explain differing turnouts. If voters are convinced that their votes have almost no chance of affecting an election’s outcome, their incentive to vote is less than in other places. My home state of New York is an example. It was clear that Biden would carry the state. There were no other statewide elections. And in my district, and in many others around New York, the outcome of every “contest” from the House of Representatives to Civil Court judges was not in advance. Not surprisingly, voting turnout in New York was in the bottom half of the states at 56.8%.
Competitive races, however, do not guarantee a high turnout. The presidential vote in Arizona, for example, was expected to be close, and the state had an important and highly competitive race for the Senate. Arizonans had greater incentives to vote than New Yorkers, but turnout in Arizona at 54.9% was less than in New York.
Perhaps the most important component of voter turnout is the amorphous concept of state culture. Some states have the history, tradition, and expectation of civic engagement more than other places. The four highest turnout states at 70% or above were Minnesota, New Hampshire, Maine, and Colorado. The four lowest, excluding Hawaii, which seems to be an outlier eight points below the next state, are West Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, and Oklahoma, from 50.2% to 52.3%. I don’t have any special knowledge about state cultures for civic engagement and do not know how to assess them in any objective way, but my gut is not surprised by which states are on the top and which on the bottom.
What may be most important, however, is how much, if at all, state policies and laws affect the turnout. States can make it easier or harder for its citizens to vote by their registration, identification, and early voting laws as they also can by the number, placement, and staffing of polling places.
Some studies after the 2016 election tried to determine whether identification laws affected turnout. A study of Wisconsin voting patterns, for example, found that the state’s new identification law deterred from 17,000 to as many as 23,000 people from voting in two counties, but I have not seen any studies of how much, if at all, the total package of a state’s voter laws and practices affect turnout.
This would be an important consideration if we were ever to have the direct election of the president. We are unlikely to abolish the electoral college and constitutionally adopt a nationwide vote for president, which would take a constitutional amendment. (I discussed this in posts of April 10 and 12, 2019.) But another possibility has some legs. This proposal would encourage state legislatures to pledge to give their electoral votes not to the winner of their state’s presidential election but to the candidate who has received the most votes nationwide. This scheme would take effect when states with a combined majority of the electoral college, or 270 electoral votes, have agreed to it. (The last time I checked, fifteen states with a total of 189 electoral votes have already passed such legislation.)
If this end run around the electoral college were adopted, we would have something like a national, direct election of the president…but not really. With a direct presidential election, all citizens in the country should have equal rights to vote for president so that a vote in one state would have the same effect in all the other states. That would require the same voting standards throughout the country.
National voting standards would not only make sure that all votes were equal throughout the country but would also help remove complaints about the fairness of elections. Because we have different methods of running presidential elections from state to state, it is too easy for some to feel that there is something wrong when a state gets and counts ballots differently from elsewhere: Mail-in ballots have to be requested in one state but not another; one state’s laws allow ballots to be counted even though received after election day and another state does not. Given these disparities, it is easy to assume or claim that a state is doing something wrong even when they are merely following their own valid laws. Uniform voting procedure throughout the country should help ameliorate these concerns.
Uniform voting procedures, however, seem impossible. We could get to something like the direct election of the president if states with a combined 270 electoral votes all agree to give their votes to the candidate who gets the most nationwide vote. All states would not have to agree to this, but uniform voting procedures would require the agreement of every state, and that is unlikely. Congress cannot force uniform requirements and methods on the states. The Constitution mandates that the states, not the national legislature, set the standards for the selection of the electoral college by requiring that “each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” the presidential electors. Congress cannot constitutionally set the methods for the election of the president. We will continue to have the mish-mash of methods of presidential elections.
We will continue to pick the president of the entire United States with states using differing methods with all the doubts and complaints that engenders.
And I still don’t understand why voter turnouts vary so much.