Is the United States in an era of high turnout?
Turnout surged during the last midterm elections in 2018 when 49 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot for the highest office in their state, according to data analyzed by the U.S. Elections Project, an election data website maintained by Michael P. McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida. The Census Bureau, using a slightly different measure, reported that it was the highest recorded turnout for a midterm election since the bureau began keeping records in 1978.
Early signs point to a similar level of turnout in last week’s midterms. Using preliminary estimates from state elections officials around the country,1 the U.S. Elections Project estimates a turnout rate of 47 percent for this year’s elections. In 14 states, turnout even went slightly up compared to 2018. (The estimates could change in states where the ballot counting is not yet complete.)
While most state turnout estimates dipped a little compared to 2018 figures, they’re still higher than in previous recent midterm years, and turnout in 2020 was elevated compared to past presidential elections. So what’s going on? Well, probably not just one thing! Instead, there are a bunch of different forces that could have brought people out to vote in the past few elections.
In 2018, according to an analysis by The Brookings Institution, Democratic-leaning groups — young voters, minorities and white college graduates — saw the biggest increases in turnout. That makes sense, since a Republican president was in office, and those demographics make up a big part of the modern Democratic coalition. President Donald Trump also motivated Republican-leaning groups to turn out that year, although they saw smaller increases. In advance of the 2018 midterms, a Pew Research Center survey found that voter enthusiasm was extremely high and that 60 percent of voters viewed their vote as an expression of support for or against Trump. Dislike of the other party, what researchers call “negative partisanship,” has motivated voters in recent elections and may still be increasing.
Turnout was also extremely high in the 2020 presidential election, which Trump lost to President Biden. Nearly two-thirds of eligible voters went to the polls, up 7 points from 2016, and Pew Research Center reported voter increases in every state. With Trump running for re-election, voters on both sides showed up, and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many states worked to make voting more accessible, making it easier to request absentee ballots and vote by mail, among other changes (at least temporarily).
Of course, a big difference between 2018 and 2022 is that Trump was not on the ballot this year. But Trump-ism was still in the mix, and still could have motivated voters. Sixty percent of Americans had a candidate on their ballots who denied that Biden won the 2020 election, and in some states, those election deniers ran for key offices that would have given them power over election administration in their states. Enabled by Trump’s appointments, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer, leading some states to enact draconian and unpopular bans, while voters elsewhere were moved to defeat initiatives that would have done the same in their own states. Trump endorsed candidates up and down ballots across the country.
There isn’t a consistent pattern in the states that saw slight increases in voter turnout compared to 2018. Sure, some states, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, were voting on abortion rights in one way or another, but so were Kentucky and California, and turnout wasn’t up in those states.
A state didn’t necessarily need a competitive race to up turnout, either. Yes, Michigan and Pennsylvania had increases and high-stakes races, but so did Arkansas, where the top election was an uncompetitive governor’s race.
Perhaps, then, it’s just getting easier to vote. Some states, like Maine and New York, have lowered voting barriers since 2018, retaining universal mail-in ballots or no-excuse absentee voting measures that went into place during the 2020 pandemic, and some of those states seem to have had an increase in turnout. But that wasn’t true in other states: In Massachusetts, pandemic-era expansions of voting rights were made permanent and there was also a gubernatorial race, but turnout appears to have decreased.
More than any of these factors, the unifying theme of the past few years has been an increased level of partisan polarization. Voters aren’t just motivated to vote against the other side, they dislike and distrust it. Overall, though, Americans turn out to vote far less than in many similar countries. What the near future holds is a question of laws, stakes and also, to some extent, our political culture.