Voter turnout in the United States is a tricky thing. By the sheer number of people casting votes, the election of 2020 was the highest in modern history. Since 1980, there are statistics kept on both the voting age population (VAP) that cast a vote, and the voter-eligible population (VEP) that cast a vote. Now obviously, not everyone of the age of 18 is a registered voter (VEP category). VAP is just everyone over at least 18 years old.
With regards to the VAP, the highest turnout occurred in the 1876 election when Rutherford Hayes defeated Samuel Tilden in a highly contested race. Previous to that, the record belonged to the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln and we all know what happened after that. Both those elections were greater than 80% VAP. Dating back to the 1972 election, VAP has not exceeded 60%. As for VEP, statistics have been kept since 1980. Only twice- 2004 and 2008- did VEP exceed that number (60%).
Obviously, the greater the turnout, the better the gauge of the electorate’s temperature and preferences. Any statistician will tell you, the greater the sample size, the greater the accuracy of the “results.” However, what happens when the experiment is tainted and other variables are unaccounted for? In the case of elections, how many votes are legal and how many ballots cast are legitimate? The only way to get an answer is to audit or recount the votes but many states do not do so except under special circumstances, namely evidence of fraud, through legislative triggers if the “final” tally is close, of if a candidate pursues a recount through the legal process (usually based on the one or both of the previous reasons).
As for turnout and voter registration, there is not necessarily a correlation. Many registered voters sit out elections, especially non-Presidential ones. Many other registered voters do not cast votes all the way down a ballot or even at the top of the ballot. Here is where anomalies enter the picture. For example, in Michigan in 2020, many voters cast straight Republican ballots, but voted for Biden, or no one at the top. This defies explanation. In Pennsylvania, Republican registration exceeded that of Democrats and in the period between 2016 and 2020, the GOP held a large advantage in voters switching party registration, yet Biden “won” the state. It is counter-intuitive to believe that many of these new Republican registrants voted for Biden, or is it?
There have been many suggestions to increase voter turnout and some of them have been adopted piecemeal by states. For example, the advent of early voting is a reality. Some states do not have it all while Illinois holds the record allowing the first vote to be cast 46 days before Election Day up until the Monday before. In other states that have early voting, there is a mashup of laws. In some counties in Idaho, there is no early voting at all. In Florida, it is ten days before the election, but again can vary by county. Other states allow it only for in-person absentee ballots. And so on.
Here are the problems with early voting. The purported reasons are to increase voter turnout, and convenience. Although it may be convenient for some, the primary reason- increasing turnout- has been a failure as the VAP and VEP statistics prove. Hence, there is really no good reason for early voting except in the case of in-person absentee voting. Secondly, using the states with a large window of early voting, many things can happen between 46 days before an election and actual Election Day. In effect, early voting is simply a convenience offered to voters who have made up their minds regardless of anything that occurs between, for example, late September and early November.
Therefore, if there is to be any early voting, then the periods allowed should be shortened and extended closer to actual Election Day. While there may be circumstances that prevent a voter from voting on actual Election Day, there is and always has been the good old-fashioned absentee ballot.
More so in 2020 than in any other election because of fear of the Wuhan flu, early voting was way up. It was also way up because many states converted to a mail-in ballot system for which they were unprepared to handle. Let’s leave 2020 out of the equation since it was unique and look at why people would want to vote early. One of the reasons proffered is polling times which differ from state to state. Within those prescribed times, there are obvious peaks and valleys and one would expect more people to show up before 9 am and after 5 pm with the reasons being obvious.
State and municipality poll workers are aware of these surges and when they are sitting around twiddling their thumbs. If the fear is long lines, then solutions are twofold. First, more polling places could be added and/or the times extended. In reality, these problems only occur in high population areas within any state. You will never hear complaints about long lines to vote in Bismarck, North Dakota, but are common in Philadelphia and other large cities.
Currently, polling hours on Election Day are no less than 12 hours and not greater than 14 hours across the 50 states and DC. Folks- that is more than ample time to cast a vote and plan your day with minimal disruption. But, let’s throw the liberals a bone and extend voting times to 15 hours out of the day. For those at 14 hours, that is adding one hour earlier or one hour later. The goal is to remove the excuse of inconvenient voting hours.
There is another suggestion to increase voter turnout- make Election Day a national holiday. That would be great for voters who are employees of the federal, state, or local governments, but have little impact on the private sector. So what do we do about them? Businesses do not shut down for a day so that employees can spend 10 minutes to an hour at the polls. With extended polling hours, there would be no need to worry unless a voter works a 15 hour shift that coincides with the polling hours (not very likely).
Another suggestion to increase voter turnout is mandatory voting. There are 22 countries that have mandatory voting laws with various degrees of actual enforcement. With all due respect, the United States is not Belgium, Australia, Guatemala, or the Republic of Congo. In this country, you have the right to vote if eligible. Implicit in that right is one not to vote. This is a ridiculous suggestion from the start. Besides, do we really want everyone over the age of 18 to be a registered voter and then cast an actual ballot? Given the results of the 2020 election, ’tis a scary thought…