What gets folks to the polls?

Plot Your Politics

What gets folks to the polls?

The United States has approximately 331 million residents of which about 250 million are eligible to vote. Of those 250 million eligible voters about 200 million are registered to vote, but even registered voters often don’t vote. In the 2020 presidential election 156 million people cast a vote for president, and during the 2022 Midterms only 111 million people voted. 

The question is what motivates people to vote or not vote? Without asking them individually we can compare turnout percentages per state to see if we can distill some trends. First, let’s look at the vastly different turnout percentages per state during the 2022 Midterms (where we calculated these as percentage of registered voters; if we would have looked at the voting-eligible population, all percentages would have been proportionally lower).

Minnesota often leads the country in voter turnout and did so again in 2022 with 72% of registered voters turning out to vote. Mississippi voters stayed home more than in any other state with just 36% voting.

In trying to explain possible reasons to vote, we have looked at 2 possible motivating factors:

  1. Governor or US Senate races. There were 36 states with a governor race, and there were 35 US Senate races in 34 states (Oklahoma had 2 US Senate elections). There were 6 states without either one of those and they are shown in red in the graph above.
  2. Abortion-related ballot measures. There were 5 states which had ballot measures related to abortion on their ballot, which has been indicated in green above.

From the graph it is clear that those states without governor or US Senate races are among those with the worst turnout, suggesting that a high-profile election like governor or senator positively affects turnout. 

It is unclear whether the abortion measure has an overall impact on the turnout in the state: although the 3rd (MT), 8th (VT) and 16th (MI) turnout states had such a measure, CA and KY are in the rear of the field while they also had such a measure on the ballot.

In order to see whether those abortion related measures had an impact on voting, we look at the turnout for men vs. women (where we have limited our analysis to men and women in the 25-65 age).

Please note that women outnumber men as registered voters in most states: on average of the 25-65 demographic, 52% women vs 48% men.

Of those registered voters, women turned out slightly more than men: on average the turnout percentage per state for women was 52%, while for men it was 51%. However, there are significant differences between states: in Michigan 57% of registered women between 25 and 65 went out to vote, while only 51% of registered men of that age range did. On the other end of the spectrum: in Wisconsin, 61% of registered women voted, while a whopping 66% of men did.

In this graph we have again marked those states with an abortion measure on the ballot in green. This time there is a clear correlation between additional voter motivation among women and the abortion measures. Four of the states with an abortion measure are showing the 1st, 4th, 10th and 13th largest gap between women and men.

As a final step, we wanted to see how far voter turnout was higher than expected, instead of just looking at the absolute numbers. For that we looked at the gap between the turnout during the 2020 presidential election and the 2022 Midterms. Please note that we take the 2020 turnout as the percentage of all eligible voters minus the 2022 turnout (for men and women between 25-65) as percentage of all registered voters. A perfect apples to apples comparison would show a slightly higher gap for all states.

What we can see here is that 4 of the top states in drop-off percentage are those without a governor or US Senate elections. At the other end of the spectrum we see that Oklahoma had excellent turnout in 2022 (compared to 2020). This could be explained by the unique circumstances of being able to elect 2 US Senators in one election cycle. Wyoming uses a somewhat unique way of registering voters which could explain their status as outlier.

Overall, we can conclude that the absence or presence of key races on the ballot impacts voter turnout, while specific ballot measures may motivate a particular segment of voters to turnout to vote. E.g, ballot measures on abortion may motivate more women to vote. At the same time there are large differences between states: Minnesota has best–in-nation voter turnout for men and women in election after election, seemingly irrespective of who or what is on the ballot.

We hope that if you’ve read this far YOU will turn out to vote. Please check out when your next opportunity to vote is!