How Voter Access Laws Led to Higher Turnout at the Polls

Nationally, 53% of the citizen voting-age population voted in 2018, a 12-point bump from the previous midterms, according to new U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Man sitting down in a voting booth.
By Tim Henderson

In Utah, marijuana revved up voter interest last year, and new election policies made it easier for people to cast their ballots, leading to the nation’s biggest jump in midterm turnout.

Around the country, state efforts to widen ballot access and Trump-era political passion spurred more voters to the polls in November than the last midterm elections in 2014. Nationally, 53% of the citizen voting-age population voted in 2018, a 12-point bump from the previous midterms, according to new U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

The increases ranged from 21 points in Utah, where about 58% of voting-age citizens voted, down to Colorado, where there was little change. Turnout already was high in Colorado at 59%, partly because the state was a pioneer in expanding ballot access.

Georgia (13 points) and California (15 points) saw big improvements with similar programs, such as automatic voter registration.

States with more restrictive voting policies didn’t always see the same results. While turnout increased in New York and Texas, both of which still require early registration, they remained in the bottom 10 among states, with turnout below 50% of citizens despite some hot races.

Utah’s turnout vaulted from 45th in the nation in 2014 to 13th in 2018, the first year all counties used both same-day registration and vote-at-home options. The state also allows residents to enroll in automatic voter registration when they get new driver’s licenses.

“The legislature has always passed the policies that take away barriers to voting, balanced with measures to make sure people are who they say they are,” said Justin Lee, Utah’s director of elections.

Utah’s turnout rose from about 37% of citizens in 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released in April.

The biggest vote-getter in Utah was a medical marijuana initiative, which got more than a million votes and passed by a close margin.

That issue, along with ballot initiatives on independent redistricting and Medicaid expansion, gave millennials a reason to vote, and nonprofits reached out to them throughout the year in registration drives, said Chase Thomas, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Utah, a nonprofit watchdog group.

“These issues really energized the left-leaning segment of our electorate in Salt Lake County and other parts of the state that has felt their vote didn’t really matter before because of the extreme conservative bent,” Thomas said.

The marijuana bill boosted turnout in Democratic-leaning Salt Lake County, where the proposition was popular, but also in more conservative Utah County, where voters opposed it, Lee said. The medical marijuana measure passed with about 53% of the vote (the state legislature has since replaced it with a new law, a move now being challenged in state court).

“I think the issues had a lot to do with it,” Lee said, “and then the policies facilitated that turnout.”

Experts disagree on how much turnout depends on state voter access policies. Arizona, New Jersey and Missouri saw big boosts without changing voting rules, as tight House and Senate races brought more people to the polls.

“It’s just as easy to argue that states that had high turnout rates were more likely to value political participation, and thus enacted more liberalized registration laws,” said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor who studies turnout issues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But voting rights advocates see opportunities for more voting in states as politically different as Texas and New York.

Since the 2018 midterm elections, New York has enacted laws to allow early voting and other policies such as pre-registration for 17-year-olds.

A March report by Nonprofit VOTE, a coalition of state and national nonprofits advocating for easier ballot access, argued that Texas would improve its turnout with same-day registration. The Texas U.S. Senate race pitting Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke against incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was the state’s closest Senate race since 1978 and drew national attention.

“Texas, in spite of having one the nation’s closest, most watched, and most expensive U.S. Senate elections, still ranked among the bottom 10 in turnout thanks in part to a registration deadline four weeks before Election Day,” the report stated. Texas’ turnout was 48.4% in 2018. On average, the 15 states with same-day registration had higher turnout, 56%, while others averaged 49%, according to the report.

However, Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said a roughly 30-day registration deadline before elections is typical for the 35 states that still didn’t have same-day registration. The deadline is 30 days in Texas and 25 days in New York.

Pérez was more critical of Texas’ photo ID requirement for voting. “Texas does first make it harder to register, then you’re hit with a voter ID law,” Pérez said.

Sam Taylor, communications director for the Texas secretary of state’s office, said the state has set aside $4 million for grassroots outreach programs to encourage more voter registration, and that voters without photo ID can vote if they fill out a form at the polls. Almost 10,000 of those forms were used in the 2018 elections, he said.

“I don’t think anybody who showed up wanting to vote was unable to do that,” Taylor said. “It was the second-highest number of votes in state history — the highest was 2016. We saw a turnout like we usually see in a presidential election.”

Another red state where passion and policy played a role in boosting turnout last year was Georgia. Under the state’s “exact match” policy, enacted in 2017, election officials can suspend or purge voters from the rolls if a name doesn’t precisely match state driver’s license and social security records.

Even trivial typos, such as a missing hyphen in a last name, can trigger the law, and a disproportionate number of the affected voters were African Americans. Nevertheless, Georgia saw a big lift in overall turnout, partly because of automatic voter registration.

Georgia had a nearly 13 point increase over 2014 midterms to 56% turnout, the census estimates showed, propelling the state from 27th place to 17th. That reflected high interest in the governor’s race, a squeaker that Republican Brian Kemp won over Democrat Stacey Abrams by less than 1 percentage point.

Automatic voter registration, a policy at least partly adopted in 18 states, had an outsized effect on Georgia, where new voter registrations nearly doubled after it took effect, according to an April report from the Brennan Center for Justice, a watchdog group that favors expanded ballot access.

Georgia in 2016 began automatically registering anyone who got or renewed a driver’s license. Colorado did so the next year, and the Brennan Center considers Connecticut, New Mexico and Utah to be “very close” but not fully “automatic.” Applicants in those states must choose to register, rather than opting out if they choose not to register.

Georgia Elections Director Chris Harvey said that automated registration coupled with online registration helped lead to almost 340,000 new voters in 2018 and a record 7 million active voters on the rolls.

Republican-leaning states such as Montana, Wyoming, New Hampshire and North Carolina already have joined Utah and liberal-leaning Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Vermont in enacting same-day registration.

“It’s not as cut and dry as liberal states doing one thing,” said Brian Miller, director of Nonprofit VOTE.

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