2016 Election Turnout: What You Should Know

Ash Center Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy Miles Rapoport shares important take-aways from “America Goes to the Polls,” the first 2016 election turnout report released by the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida and Nonprofit VOTE. This is the second article in the American Prospect series, where we post Miles’ biweekly column in the American Prospect on democracy issues. Read other posts in the series here. 

 

By Miles Rapoport

America Goes to the Polls,” the first report on 2016 election turnout based on official returns compiled by secretaries of state, was released Thursday by the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida and Nonprofit VOTE. This is the seventh election for which they have done this. Kudos to the two organizations for providing a report that is full of interesting information and worth a full read on a variety of counts.

First, 139 million people voted, 60.2 percent of the voting eligible population (VEP is the best measure because it accounts for people barred from voting for felony convictions). This is the third-highest turnout since 18-year-olds first got the vote in 1972, and a 1.6 percent increase over 2012.

A second notable fact is that an astonishing 33 congressional elections were decided by 10 points or less, while 73 percent were landslide margins of 20 points or more.

But the real gems here are for people who have engaged in the discussion of whether opening up registration and voting opportunities really matters. For us, there is some really important data here.

 

Same-Day Registration Shines

The lead finding of the authors of the study is that “Same day voter registration has proven to be the most effective and multi-faceted policy to increase voter participation across all states, regardless of voters’ ages and backgrounds.” States with same-day registration (SDR) had a 7-point advantage over non-SDR states in 2016. Even more significant is that this advantage—actually anywhere from 7 points to 13 points—has been consistent from 1996, when only six states had SDR, through 2016, when SDR was in effect in 14 states and the District of Columbia; evidence from a larger and larger sample.

SDR has seen remarkable growth. Eight new states have adopted SDR since the 2004 election. Three additional states—California, Vermont, and Hawaii—will offer same-day registration in 2018, bringing the total to 18. There are some variations in the law among the states. Most offer registration opportunities up to and including Election Day, while two states (North Carolina and Maryland) offer them only during the early-voting period.

The top six turnout states—Minnesota (the highest, at 74.8 percent of VEP), Maine, New Hampshire, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Iowa—are all SDR states. Five of the six, excepting Minnesota, were also battleground states.

Connecticut and Illinois, the two most recent SDR adopters (neither of them battleground states) had the highest increases in turnout between 2012 and 2016, at 4.1 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

The remarkable advance of same-day registration was not an accident. National organizations, including Demos and Common Cause, and numerous state organizations led the fights in legislatures around the country. Demos’s work began in 2002 with a report, “Election Day Registration,” by professors Michael Alvarez and Stephen Ansolabehere, which made the case for the reform. (Full disclosure: I was president of Demos when that work began.)

 

Other Significant Reforms

  • The three states that offered all-mail elections were all in the top 12. Colorado (fourth), Oregon (eighth) and Washington (12th). Colorado is particularly significant because it combines the ballots mailed to every voter with the additional option of Election Day centers that allowed people to vote in person, and to register and vote using SDR.
  • Oregon implemented its new automatic voter registration (AVR) procedures for this election, and had the largest single increase in turnout at 4.1 percent, even though it was not a battleground state. And interestingly, 43.5 percent of the people automatically registered at a DMV transaction voted. This is obviously a lower percentage than the overall turnout, but a significant increase in the electorate.
  • Online registration has experienced tremendous growth, with 15 states adopting it just in the last two years. Major spurts of online registration occurred on National Voter Registration Day in September, and even more significant jumps took place when Facebook and other platforms urged their users to register just days before the deadlines in particular states.
  • Pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds is now offered by 15 states. This has led to energetic efforts in high schools around the country to register students before they graduate, and studies have shown that people who engage in the registration and voting process early retain that engagement throughout their lives.

Barack Obama takes advantage of early voting at his Chicago precinct

 

Battlegrounds Matter, of Course

It would clearly be a mistake to attribute changes in turnout solely or primarily to the registration and voting processes in use. According to AGTP, the other most important factor impacting turnout and rankings was whether states were battleground states or not.

According to the report, the 14 battleground states (determined in conjunction with the Cook report), showed a 5 percent advantage over non-battleground states. As mentioned before, five of the six top states were battlegrounds. This should hardy be a surprise. The report points out that 95 percent of campaign visits and the overwhelming preponderance of campaign spending were in battleground states. In fact, 71 percent of the spending and 57 percent of the campaign visits were in four states alone—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina. And overall, 147 million voters—65 percent—lived in non-battleground states.

Another interesting statistic the report provides is that Latino voters and Asian American and Pacific Islander voters were significantly more likely not to live in battleground states than black or white voters. Seventy-five percent of Latinos and 81 percent of AAPI voters were outside the targeted zones for presidential campaign resources.

 

Contested Terrain

Of course, a purely positive discussion of how registration and voting processes impacted the election would be Pollyanna Pete-ism in the extreme. The efforts to expand registration and voting opportunities have competed with vigorous efforts to make it more difficult for people to vote. Untangling the impact of these competing efforts will be an ongoing battle, in the research and scholarly world as well as on the political battlefield. In an interesting case in point, Wisconsin, which is both an SDR state and was a major battleground state, still dropped 3.1 percent, and dropped its ranking from number two to number five, very likely the result of the restrictive voter-ID laws enacted over the last few years. In fact, Wisconsin’s turnout was the lowest presidential turnout in 16 years.

Erecting restrictions and barriers to registration and voting has become a staple of conservative strategy, promoted by ALEC, the Heritage Foundation, and many Republican strategists. Efforts to require voter ID and even proof of citizenship, roll back same-day registration, shorten early-voting periods, keep the lid on restoring voting rights for people with felony convictions, and close down voting locations have been pushed relentlessly, quickening since 2010 and especially after the Shelby v. Holder decision at the Supreme Court.

Many new bills aimed at restricting the vote have been introduced in state legislatures around the country already this year. There has been an energetic and effective fight against these efforts, and prior to the 2016 elections many of the suppressive laws were struck down in court or otherwise deferred. Unfortunately, one major (if occasionally reticent) ally in these fights has been the Justice Department under Eric Holder, and the Sessions Justice Department will be a very different place.

The wars between those seeking to expand voting access and those seeking to restrict it will be fierce, and will be waged all around the country in this year’s legislative sessions and beyond, and this will be a subject for a coming column.

But for now, it is important to appreciate the authors of this timely and useful study. And the fighters for expanding the franchise have gotten a new and statistic-laden piece of recognition of the impact and significance of their work.

 

Miles Rapoport is a Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Previously, Rapoport was President of the independent grassroots organization Common Cause, and for 13 years, he headed the public policy center Demos. Rapoport served as Secretary of the State in Connecticut from 1995-1999, and served ten years in the Connecticut legislature.

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