Voter turnout in 2018 midterms could break historic records

Voter turnout in the 2018 midterms could hit historic highs. (Photo credit: KOKH/FILE)

Voter turnout wins elections and in 2018 and on Nov. 6, America could be looking at a historic midterm election in terms of participation by eligible voters in both political parties.

At a time of heightened partisanship and fears that America's civil norms are crumbling, the silver lining could be a level of voter engagement, unlike anything the country has seen in decades.

"You'd have to go back over a century to see a turnout rate for a midterm election that was over 50 percent," said Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who runs the United States Elections Project, a voter turnout database. "This could be a historic election. There's uncertainty at this point, but it could be."

Voter turnout in midterm elections has always been lower than presidential elections. Over the last four decades, the average midterm election participation has hovered around 39 percent typically attracting more educated, less racially diverse pool of voters. Presidential elections tend to attract 61 percent of eligible voters and reflect a broader, more diverse electorate.

According to Spencer Kimball, a pollster and professor at Emerson College, it is entirely possible that voter turnout in 2018 will be closer to 60 percent. If so, pollsters should consider scrapping their midterm rule book in favor of one that accounts for a broader, more engaged electorate, comparable to presidential election years.

"There's so much interest in politics right now," said Kimball. "It's a sign of strength in this country, that democracy is strong because people are voting and they are engaged and involved in the process."

HIGHER PARTICIPATION IN SPECIAL ELECTIONS, PRIMARIES, EARLY VOTING

All the signs suggest the 2018 midterms will be far more engaging than the last midterm elections in 2014, which saw voter participation drop to 35.9 percent, the lowest rate of voter participation since 1942.

Voter engagement has been on the rise since President Donald Trump took office and it has already translated into more engagement. According to Michael McDonald, there have been three key indicators that suggest high voter turnout in 2018

  • Higher turnout in special elections
  • Higher than normal early voting
  • Increased voter participation in primary elections

Traditionally, special elections and primary elections attract only a small percentage of die-hard voters, but that rule was scrapped in 2017 and 2018 when voter turnout in a handful of special elections rivaled midterm turnout rates in 2014.

For example, in Alabama, slightly more than 40 percent of eligible voters came to the polls for the state's closely watched special election between Republican candidate Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones. In the 2014 midterm, voter turnout was less than 33 percent, down from 43 percent in 2010.

Georgia's special election for the 6th Congressional District also produced unexpectedly high voter turnout in what became the most expensive House race in history. More than 58 percent of eligible voters went to the polls and elected the Republican candidate Karen Handel over Democratic newcomer Jon Ossoff. In the 2014 midterm election, only 38 percent of Georgians turned out to vote statewide and 39.8 percent showed up in 2010. In both special elections, Democrats saw the greatest boost in participation.

Typically sleepy primary races saw a boost in this election cycle as well. Republican pollster John Couvillon studied turnout in 35 states with competitive primaries and found substantial increases compared to 2014, particularly among Democrats. While Republicans saw a 23 percent increase in primary turnout, Democratic turnout surged by 78 percent.

In part, primary turnout can be attributed to the record number of people who threw their hats in the ring—including a record number of female candidates. According to Open Secrets, 3,360 candidates ran for the House or Senate this year, with the majority running as Democrats. That number is up 21 percent from the 2014 midterms and more than 12 percent from 2010. There has also been an unprecedented amount of money poured into races, which translates into more advertising and more visibility.

In terms of participation in primary elections and early voting, Minnesota has been a standout state. In the state's August primaries, Democratic participation surged 204 percent over 2014 with Republican participation increasing by 78 percent.

Early voting in Minnesota, which began on Sept. 21, has now exceeded the rate of early voting in the 2016 presidential election.

"For a state to have a higher turnout than the last presidential election, you'd have to go all the way back to the founding of the country to see something like that," McDonald. If the trend carries through to Nov. 6, it would be "unprecedented."

Next week, the picture from early voting will become clearer. According to McDonald, the volume of turnout in early voting states will provide a "strong signal" of what to expect from other states as well.

Early voting is not the most reliable indicator of overall turnout, but it provides a "strong signal" of what to expect in the upcoming midterms. It also suggests a high degree of engagement when voters are making a mad dash to their ballots. By Monday afternoon, early voting across all U.S. jurisdictions had surpassed 5 million.

"Trump really inflames peoples' passions and those who are politically knowledgeable and following politics very closely they are casting their ballots the first opportunity they get," McDonald said.

COMPETITIVE RACES: NOTHING DRAWS A CROWD LIKE A GOOD FIGHT

Both Democrats and Republicans are casting the 2018 election as the most important midterm, where the stakes have never been higher and the consequences of defeat never more dire.

Barnstorming across the country, President Trump has unambiguously embraced the idea that 2018 is a referendum on him, telling crowds of supporters that a vote for the Republican candidate is a vote for Trump and a vote for Democrats is a vote for "crime" and economic disaster.

Some more outspoken Democrats have cast the 2018 battle in equally apocalyptic terms, warning the fate of the country is at stake. More generally the party sees itself engaged in a fight to impose checks and balances on President Trump by retaking the House, defending seats in the Senate and shift power in the states where Republicans control 39 out of 50 governor's seats.

Typically, in non-presidential election years, voters tend to turn out in higher numbers for statewide elections or when they are particularly motivated. In 2018, there are at least 18 hotly contested "toss-up" statewide races either for the Senate or the governorship.

As could be expected, the states with the closest races are showing the most signs of voter participation. Early voting rates are notably higher than 2014 in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Tennessee.

The Texas Senate race between Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and Democratic Congressman Beto O'Rourke has drawn national attention and millions of dollars in outside campaign contributions. On Monday, the first day of early voting, there were reports of long lines at polling places across the state. By late afternoon in Austin, there were twice as many early voters compared to the first day of early voting in 2014. The turnout looked much more like early voting in the 2016 presidential election.

Again, 2018 is not the typical midterm. Even states that do not have a competitive statewide race are seeing signs of increased engagement, like North Carolina.

There were 431,000 ballots cast in the first five days of early voting in North Carolina. In the 2016 presidential election, there were 410,000 early votes cast in the first four days.

Other states are mobilizing voters with ballot initiatives like marijuana legalization in Michigan, North Dakota and Missouri, or a gas tax initiative in California that Republicans hope will drive their voters to the polls.

On top of Democrats and Republicans nationalizing the midterms, voter enthusiasm also points to a more engaged electorate this year.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed voter enthusiasm is up across nearly all demographic groups and in both parties, with 77 percent of registered voters saying they are certain to vote or have already cast their ballot. Though neither party has a monopoly on enthusiasm, Democrats have a three-point lead over Republicans. Compared to 2014, younger voters and nonwhite voters show the largest increase in enthusiasm, demographics that historically tend to vote Democratic.

REGISTRATION AND FREE RIDES TO THE POLLS

Some states continue to struggle with voter registration, including mandatory purges of the voter rolls and other impediments. Still, in 2018, there have been more eligible voters registering than in 2014.

On Sept. 25, organizers reported the largest National Voter Registration Day on record. More than 800,000 eligible voters registered for the 2018 midterms, nearly 30,000 more than the number who registered for the 2016 presidential election.

Moreover, there are now 15 states plus the District of Columbia that allow same-day registration on Election Day. Same day voter registration is considered one of the most promising ways to increase participation. In recent studies of states with same-day registration, lowering that barrier to voting produced an uptick of as much as 4 to 7 percent in turnout during a presidential election year.

Young voter registration has also surged, even beyond the so-called Taylor Swift effect. HeadCount, a non-partisan, nonprofit group registers voters at concerts, music festivals, comic conventions and other cultural events and registered more than 75,000 voters in 2018, more than triple the number of voters it signed up in the last midterm.

"We're seeing a clear and stark increase in excitement to vote and excitement to participate," said Aaron Ghitelman, Head Count's communications director. The organization tends to get more young people on the voter rolls. For example, in 2016, more than half of Head Count's newly registered voters were under 30 years old and 74 percent of those who registered cast a ballot.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the top reason people gave for not voting in the last midterm election was being too busy or having a scheduling conflict. The the next highest reason, voters said they were not interested. Roughly 2 percent of voters said lack of transportation prevented them from casting their ballot.

With more voters engaged and passionate about election outcomes, there has been a push from the private sector to make it easier to get to the polls.

Both Uber and Lyft announced plans to offer free rides to the polls Nov. 6. "To help the millions of Americans who cite transportation barriers as the reason they don’t vote, we’ll be partnering with #VoteTogether and Democracy Works to provide free rides to the polls," Uber announced in a press release earlier this month.

Lyft said it will offer half-priced rides across the country and free rides to "underserved communities that face significant obstacles to transportation." Voters can get vouchers for half-priced and free rides through Lyft's partner organizations including Vote.org, Nonprofit Vote, TurboVote and others.

Unlike other advanced democracies, the United States has yet to make Election Day a federal holiday. According to reports from the Society for Human Resources Management, a record 44 percent of American firms will give workers paid time off to vote Nov. 6. In 2016, only 37 percent of employers offered time off. Another 400 businesses have committed to boosting voter turnout in other ways.

"If those activities are happening and it becomes more mainstream, you'll see an increase," Kimball said. "And who knows what 2020 will look like."

A turnout rate of 60 percent for a midterm election would be remarkable for the United States, which continues to have among the lowest voter participation rates among advanced democracies.

"There are still a lot of challenges out there. When all is said and done, we're only talking about half of the eligible voters in the country participating as the high end of what may be feasible," McDonald noted. "We still have a long way to go in terms of fully engaging our populace."


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