Analyzing the 2020 Turnout Increase

By Jim Ellis

March 29, 2021 — As we know, election year 2020 produced the largest voter participation level in history, including a substantial increase from the last presidential turnout in 2016. Now that all states have reported finalized election numbers, we know that a total of 158,507,137 individuals cast ballots in the 2020 presidential election, a number that shattered even the highest pre-election turnout predictions.

The figure also represents a 15.9 percent turnout increase when compared with 2016, which, at that time also set a record for raw number voter participation. Attempting to explain the large jump, the proponents of the election system overhaul legislative package in Congress, HR-1/S.1, credit the rise to the heightened use of early and mail voting, and therefore want to make permanent most of the court ordered COVID-19 pandemic response procedural changes. Digging deeper, however, we find that there are other factors present that help explain the voting uptick.

While all but five states (Alabama, Connecticut, Mississippi, Missouri, and New Hampshire) employed some form of early voting, another five conducted their elections only through the mail. The usual all-mail states of Colorado, Oregon, and Washington were joined by Hawaii and Utah according to the Ballotpedia election statistics organization that regularly publishes related data.

All five of these latter states saw turnout growth rates that exceeded the national average, including the state posting the highest increase, the Aloha State of Hawaii, which saw a whopping 32.5 percent rise in voting.

As stated earlier, the national average turnout increase when comparing the 2020 figures with 2016 is 15.9 percent. Eighteen states saw an increase greater than the national mean average, while 32 states and the District of Columbia fell below that number. All 51 entities, however, reported an upsurge in voting from 2016. The median average calculated to an increase of 12.8 percent.

Let’s concentrate on the 10 states with the highest increase from 2016. They are:

STATE        PERCENT INCREASE
Hawaii 32.5%
Arizona 31.6%
Utah 31.5%
Texas 26.2%
Idaho 25.8%
Nevada 24.9%
California 23.4%
Washington 23.2%
Tennessee 21.8%
Georgia 21.5%

In addition to running an all-mail system or increasing their mail voting access, six of these 10 were among the top ten fastest growing states during the decade: Arizona (5th fastest), Utah (2), Texas (3), Idaho (4), Nevada (6), and Washington (9). Therefore, all six entities had substantially more people than they did in 2016, another key element in explaining the voter turnout bump.

Expanding to include the top 15 turnout increase states, we find that Georgia (21.5 percent increase in voting; 10th in population growth); Montana (21.4 percent voting; 17th in growth); South Carolina (19.5 percent; 11th); Oregon (18.6 percent; 13th); and Florida (17.5 percent; 7th) also fit the fastest growing to largest voting increase ratio pattern.

Whether or not the state became a political battleground also had major influence over the turnout performance. In the 18 states above the national turnout increase average, we find all five of President Trump’s key base states — those he had to win to set up the rest of the map that would allow him to secure victory. They are: Arizona (2nd highest turnout increase), Texas (4th highest), Georgia (10th highest), Florida (14th), and North Carolina (17th). Also included among the highest turnout increase states is the swing battleground of Nevada.

Rather surprisingly, the major Great Lakes States that were always thought to make the determining difference in the 2020 presidential election were all below average in turnout increase. It is important to remember, however, that three of those four, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, are slated to lose congressional representation in the next reapportionment thus suggesting that growth patterns also influenced turnout in these places, too.

In conclusion, 2020 was an extraordinary turnout year, and while the increase in mail and early voting clearly had an effect upon the rise, other factors such as population growth and whether the state was a top political battleground also carried great influence.

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