New report on 2018 voting shows how to boost turnout: make registration easier, allow vote-by-mail
A new report from the organization Nonprofit VOTE examines turnout rates in every state in 2018, reaching informative conclusions about the impact of laws that make it easier or harder to vote. Last year’s 50% turnout rate was the highest level of midterm participation since the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed, but turnout varied considerably by state. Minnesota led the nation with 64% of eligible voters casting a ballot, and the report notes that almost all of the states in the top 10, like Minnesota, have policies such as same-day voter registration, where voters can still register and vote as late as Election Day.
On the other hand, Hawaii once again ranked dead last in turnout with just 39% of eligible voters participating. However, Hawaii is unusual because, while it has same-day registration, it’s almost monolithically Democratic, so there’s little reason for voters to turn out when elections are effectively decided in the primary. By contrast, almost all of the other states in the bottom 10 for turnout require voters to register roughly four weeks before Election Day, when many voters simply aren’t paying extremely close attention to the election. That list included even Texas and Tennessee, which both had heavily contested Senate races.
The report also looks at the substantial impact of universal vote-by-mail, where all registered voters are mailed a ballot each election. While the boost to turnout in general elections attributable to mail voting doesn’t appear to be substantially larger than that of other reforms such as same-day registration, all-mail states see considerably higher turnout in primaries. That finding makes sense: Primaries tend to be considerably lower-profile than general elections and therefore typically see lower turnout simply because many voters aren’t aware there’s an election happening. Getting a ballot in the mail, however, serves as an ideal reminder.
Meanwhile, automatic voter registration programs, where voters who interact with certain state agencies are automatically registered unless they opt out, have now passed in more than a dozen states since Oregon became the first to pass one in 2015. The report finds that states with such systems saw an 11% increase in registrations between 2014 and 2018, compared to just 3% in states without automatic or same-day registration.
As this report emphasizes, automatic registration, same-day registration, and vote-by-mail should be three of the biggest priorities for those seeking to boost voter turnout across the country.