US 2020 Election

Exploring voter turnout

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This piece is part of a series from Backbench exploring the US 2020 presidential election. To have your say and share your opinions on this defining moment for the US, email your pitches and articles to editor@bbench.co.uk

This year’s presidential election could see the highest voter turnout since 1908, according to data from the US Elections Project. At time of writing, two days before polling day, already over 85 million Americans had cast their vote – more than 60 per cent the total turnout in 2016.

Young people, who are more likely to lean Democrat, seem to be voting early in large numbers. But Democrats need to not get pre-emptively excited: Republicans are more likely to vote on election day, and already the gap between the parties is beginning to close in some key swing states. 

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic is a major factor in this surge of early voting, as many Americans opt for mail-in or early ballots to avoid exposure to COVID. But there’s also evidence this year is different for other reasons, in particular the record numbers of young people going out (or staying in) to vote. 

But even amid forecasts of the highest turnout out for a century, the US still trails behind other developed economies in terms of voter engagement. Participation has sat between 48 per cent and 57 per cent in presidential elections since 1980. 

Why is voter turnout in the US so low? And how can this year’s potentially record-breaking figures be sustained to the mid-terms and beyond?

Voter registration

In many countries, such as Sweden and Germany, voter registration is automatic once someone becomes eligible. In the vast majority, the government assumes a relatively proactive role in seeking out eligible voters. 

Meanwhile in the United States, eligible voters are responsible for their own registration. According to the Pew Research Center, only 64 per cent of the voting-age population are registered, compared with 96 per cent in the UK (data from 2017).

While political and third-party voter registration drives happen every year, each state can put its own limitations on these campaigns. Eligible voters are therefore not uniformly targeted and encouraged to vote as in many other countries.

Felony disenfranchisement

For someone with a criminal record, voting can be even more difficult. A total of 5.2 million Americans are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction

Even after being released from prison, many states have legal systems in place preventing people with convictions from voting until certain requirements are met. In many states, including Texas, Washington and Wisconsin, those with a criminal conviction are required to complete all probation and parole before having their voting rights restored. 

A total of 11 states, including swing states Florida and Iowa, in some instances permanently disenfranchise people with felony convictions. Kentucky and Virginia are the last two states to permanently deprive all people with felony convictions of their vote unless they receive discretionary clemency from the governor.

Moreover, many people with criminal records experience what the Brennan Center call ‘de-facto disenfranchisement’. There are widespread reports of election officials misunderstanding their state’s felony voting policies, meaning hundreds of thousands of would-be voters are unable to cast their ballot.

Underrepresented demographics

Aspects of the American electoral system make voting more difficult, and may disproportionately impact certain demographics.

As of August 2020, 34 states required some form of identification in order to cast a ballot. They vary significantly in how strict they are, some requiring photo ID. As more states consider introducing voter ID laws, usually designed to prevent against fraud, many have levelled accusations of voter suppression and a disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities.

The Brennan Center say 11 per cent of eligible voters do not have a current, government-issued photo ID – that equals about 25 million people. Research on the issue has produced mixed results, though evidence suggests that white Americans are more likely to own a photo ID. A 2019 study showed a strong link between strict voter ID laws and lower voter turnout among Hispanic Americans.

According to the Pew Research Center, white Americans are more likely to vote than other racial demographics. Older people, college graduates and those who frequently go to the church are the most likely to turn out on polling day. 

Logistical issues

For most voters in the UK, queuing for hours outside a polling station to cast your ballot is a foreign prospect. But it’s a not uncommon sight for American voters: already in Texas, Ohio and Virginia voters have been made to stand in hours-long queues

This year, drop-boxes – where voters can securely place their filled-in ballot – have become more popular and more common. But Republican leadership in Texas and Ohio have limited numbers of drop-boxes to one per county, forcing some people to travel long distances to vote. This means Harris county, Texas’ most populous, has one drop-box and a population of 4.7 million.

Critics say this amounts to voter suppression, and legal challenges are ongoing.

Improving voter turnout

So how to maintain this year’s predicted surge in voter turnout?

Unfortunately, research shows there is no ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to increasing participation of eligible voters. Measures such as allowing portable and on-the-day registration could increase turnout by a few percentage points. 

Some are more sceptical about the value of such reforms, with MIT political science professor Adam Berinsky concluding, ‘lowering the direct costs of voting does little if anything to increase turnout’. 

The biggest impact on voter turnout would likely come from more substantial reforms. Some researchers suggest the best way to make the electorate both more representative and larger would be to better inform voters about candidates’ policy differences. 

Transitioning away from America’s two-party system, while difficult to achieve, may increase voter turnout by between 9 and 12 per cent.

Finally, research published in Nature has shown that postal voting increases turnout for those typically less likely to vote, including young people, African Americans and people with less education and wealth. Whether postal voting is allowed to continue in such high numbers in future elections may depend on Tuesday’s results.

Regardless the result, the 2020 presidential election should teach some important lessons about how to encourage participation in democracy.

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