States with low election turnout did little in 2023 to expand voting access

Inaction can be as powerful as active voter suppression, findings show

By: - June 17, 2023 4:00 am

An analysis by States Newsroom found that eight states had voter turnout rates of below 50 percent when averaged between the last two national elections, and several of those states have since imposed new restrictions that are likely to make voting harder. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

This year’s state legislative sessions are almost all wrapped up. And on voting and elections policy, the headlines have largely focused on a new wave of restrictive voting laws passed in big Republican-led states like Florida, Texas, and Ohio, as well as expansive laws approved in Democratic-led states like Michigan, Minnesota, and New York.

But another development has flown under the radar — one that may be equally revealing about the priorities driving those in charge of voting policy in many states.

Lowest average turnout rates

The eight states with average turnout rates (based on the 2020 and 2022 elections) below 50%:

  • Tennessee: 45.4%
  • West Virginia: 46.2%
  • Mississippi: 46.4%
  • Oklahoma: 47.7%
  • Hawaii: 48.2%
  • Arkansas: 48.7%
  • Indiana: 49.1%
  • Alabama: 49.8%

Eight states — Tennessee, West Virginia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Hawaii, Arkansas, Indiana, and Alabama — had turnout rates of below 50 percent when averaged between the last two national elections.

Yet these states did almost nothing this year to boost turnout, according to an analysis by States Newsroom of new election laws and policies (though one, Hawaii, did make meaningful reforms in previous sessions). In fact, several moved in the opposite direction, imposing new restrictions that are likely only to make voting harder.

Because these eight states are mostly small or mid-size, and none are swing states — Hawaii is deep blue, while the rest are solidly red — their voting policies tend to attract less national attention than their larger and more competitive counterparts.

But they’re home to around 32 million people. And, by settling for feeble voting rates, they weaken U.S. democracy writ large.

Turnout rates matter for the health of a democracy, because the higher the rate of voting, the more closely the result reflects the will of the people, and the more legitimacy it carries. That’s especially true because turnout rates vary by age, race, income level, and more.

The findings highlight how inaction can be as powerful as active voter suppression. Policymakers in some of these states don’t recognize their low turnout rates as a problem: Top election officials in several have said encouraging voting isn’t their job.

U.S. turnout lags

American democracy has a turnout problem, experts on elections warn.

In the 2020 election, almost two-thirds of eligible voters cast a ballot — the highest rate in decades. Yet that still ranked the U.S. 31st out of 50 developed countries examined in a 2022 Pew Research Center study of turnout among the voting-age population — well behind places with far less robust democratic traditions like Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, Hungary, and Slovenia.

U.S. midterm elections have even lower voting rates. In 2022, just 46% of eligible voters turned out. And that was higher than all but one previous midterm this century.

Plenty of factors affect turnout, from the appeal of the choices on the ballot to the effectiveness of the campaigns at mobilizing their backers. But broadly speaking, states with more voter-friendly rules tend to see higher turnout than states with more restrictive rules.

In 2022, Oregon, which made voting easier than any other state that year, according to a well-regarded ranking system, had the highest turnout in the country — more than twice that of Tennessee, which ranked 38th on ease of voting.

Six of the eight states with the lowest voting rates in the States Newsroom analysis ranked 35th or lower on ease of voting as measured by a cost of voting index.

This correlation between ease of voting and turnout gives lawmakers and election officials from states with low turnout rates a clear path to starting to fix the problem: Make voting easier.

But a close look at what those eight lowest-performing states did this year shows that — with perhaps one exception — easing voting is not the path they’re pursuing.



Average turnout in last two elections: 45.4% (50th out of 50)

Ease of Voting Ranking: 38th out of 50

After a midterm election in which turnout dropped to just 31.3% — less than 1 in 3 eligible voters — the Volunteer State passed two elections bills this year, neither of which is likely to significantly affect turnout. In addition, lawmakers introduced several restrictive measures, including one, quickly withdrawn, that would have eliminated early voting in the state.

The office of Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a Republican, said it has partnered with businesses, sports teams, chambers of commerce and non-profit organizations to promote voting. It also runs outreach programs encouraging eligible high-school and college students to register to vote.

Julia Bruck, a Hargett spokesperson, attributed Tennessee’s low voting rates to a lack of competitive races.

“Competitive races drive turnout, not the referees,” Bruck said via email. “Tennessee has not seen as many competitive statewide races.”

Asked why Tennessee’s turnout lags even other states with a lack of competitive races, Bruck did not respond.

West Virginia

Average turnout in last two elections: 46.2% (49th out of 50)

Ease of Voting Ranking: 19th out of 50

The Mountaineer State passed only one elections bill this session, which isn’t likely to have a major impact on turnout. The League of Women Voters of West Virginia wrote in a February letter to lawmakers that the state’s rules present “many barriers,” and called for increased access.

“The legislature has offered no such improvements,” the group added.

West Virginia joined several other GOP-led states in withdrawing from the Electronic Registration Information Center, an interstate compact for sharing voter data, after right-wing activists accused the group, without evidence, of partisan bias. Experts have said that leaving ERIC will make it harder to maintain accurate voter rolls.

Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican, doesn’t appear in a hurry to boost voting in the state. Testifying before Congress in April, Warner said West Virginia has “perhaps the best balance” in the country between election access and election security, and called for an end to the federal requirement that state motor vehicle departments offer voter registration — the single most popular way for new voters to register.

In a separate appearance, Warner said it’s not his job to increase turnout. “That is a candidate, party or campaign’s job, to get out the voters,” he argued. “It’s my job to run a free, fair and clean election.”

Warner’s office did not respond to a request for comment on any efforts to increase turnout.


Average turnout in last two elections: 46.4% (48th out of 50)

Ease of Voting Ranking: 49th out of 50

The Magnolia State passed three elections bills this year, two of which had the effect of further restricting access (the third will likely have little impact on turnout). One makes it easier for election officials to remove voters from the rolls, while the other outlaws “ballot harvesting,” in which third parties, often local community organizations, collect absentee ballots from voters and mail or bring them to election offices. Voter advocacy groups have said the ban, which is being challenged by the ACLU as a violation of the Voting Rights Act, will make it harder for elderly voters and those with disabilities, among others, to cast a ballot.

After turnout in last year’s June primaries sank to just 11%, Secretary of State Michael Watson, a Republican, called the number “discouraging,” and led registration drives at high school and college football games and other venues.

Watson’s office did not respond to a request for comment about additional ways to boost turnout.


Average turnout in last two elections: 47.7% (47th out of 50)

Ease of Voting Ranking: 35th out of 50

The Sooner State passed five elections bills this session. None appear likely to have a major impact on turnout, but one suggests an aversion to efforts to expand access: It makes it much harder for Oklahoma to join ERIC or any other interstate compact that, like ERIC, requires outreach to eligible but unregistered voters — a key factor in the decisions of some other red states to leave ERIC.

Another new law requires the state to obtain death records from the Social Security Administration, in order to identify registered voters who may have died, then work with local election officials to potentially remove them from the rolls.

Oklahoma’s Board of Elections didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on efforts to boost turnout.


Average turnout in last two elections: 48.2% (46th out of 50)

Ease of Voting Ranking: 4th out of 50

The Aloha State passed only one elections bill this session, which isn’t likely to significantly affect turnout.

But Hawaii stands out from most of the other low-performing states, because in recent years it has implemented reforms, giving it an extremely voter-friendly system today. In 2019, it switched to universal mail elections, and in 2021 it passed automatic voter registration. It also offers same-day registration, in which voters can register at the polls.

Though Hawaii’s 2020 turnout rate of 55.2% was the lowest in the nation, the state also saw the biggest turnout increase compared to the previous presidential election, when turnout was just 42.5%.

That suggests the new mail-balloting system has the potential to lead to significant improvements over time. Automatic voter registration, too, has helped boost turnout in other states, but it has generally taken at least one cycle to have an impact.

Still, some election officials don’t sound eager to help with the turnaround. The chief elections administrator for Honolulu County, where over two-thirds of Hawaiians live, has said, as paraphrased by a local columnist, that “it is not up to government to inspire people to vote.”

“People vote because they are motivated or optimistic, or they are passionate about the issues or the candidates,” the administrator, Rex Quidilla, said last year.


Average turnout in last two elections: 48.7% (45th out of 50)

Ease of Voting Ranking: 48th out of 50

Arkansas passed 16 elections bills this session. And yet, despite the state’s third-from-bottom ranking on turnout, not one aimed to significantly expand access. In fact, taken together, they’re likely to make voting even harder.

One measure creates a criminal penalty for election officials who mail voters unsolicited absentee ballots or absentee ballot applications — something state law already barred them from doing. Another creates an “Election Integrity Unit” to investigate election crimes, and a third bans the use of drop-boxes to vote.

Still another amends the state constitution to require the secretary of state to do more to remove ineligible voters from the rolls, including creating a system to verify citizenship. And a fifth expands a ban on accepting money from outside groups to help run elections. That was an issue taken up by Republicans nationally after funds provided by an organization financed in part with a one-time donation in 2020 by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg played a key role in ensuring that the 2020 elections ran smoothly despite the covid-19 pandemic.

Secretary of State John Thurston, a Republican, has suggested that expanding access isn’t a top priority. “You have to take ownership of your vote,” he said last year. “We do want it to be convenient, but hard to cheat. Accuracy is more important than convenience.”

Thurston’s office did not respond to a request for comment on efforts to increase turnout.


Average turnout in last two elections: 49.1% (44th out of 50)

Ease of Voting Ranking: 36th out of 50

The Hoosier State passed two significant elections bills this year, both of which could further limit voting. One makes it harder for local governments to adopt their own election reforms without state approval — it comes after cities across the country have found innovative ways to expand voting access. The other affects the ability to vote more directly: It bars the mailing of unsolicited mail ballot applications, and requires voters requesting a mail ballot to submit additional identifying information.

Secretary of State Diego Morales, a Republican, campaigned on his support for a slew of new voting restrictions, but has backed off most of them since taking office in January.

Morales spokesperson Lindsey Eaton said via email that the secretary of state has sought and received special funding from the legislature for voter outreach, and has also provisionally received a federal grant to be used in part for voter outreach.

The office is also working with the Indiana Broadcasters Association on a public information campaign to promote voting. And Morales has announced plans to conduct voter outreach at county fairs in all 92 counties in the state.

“As the first Latino elected to a statewide office in Indiana, increasing voter turnout across the state remains a top priority for Secretary Morales,” Eaton said.


Average turnout in last two elections: 49.8% (43rd out of 50)

Ease of Voting Ranking: 45th out of 50

The Yellowhammer State’s legislature adjourned in early June without passing any elections bills. A measure that Democrats and civil rights groups called voter suppression passed the state House but unexpectedly did not receive a vote in the Senate. The bill would have made it a crime to help a voter with an absentee ballot, though it contained exceptions for family members and some others.

Like Warner in West Virginia, Secretary of State Wes Allen, a Republican who has denied the 2020 election results, rejects the idea that he should encourage voting. Allen withdrew Alabama from ERIC on his first day in office, and explained that he did so in part because ERIC requires states to contact eligible but unregistered voters and urge them to register.

“Our job is to help give (local election staff and law enforcement) the resources they need to make sure our elections are run in the most safe, secure, and transparent way possible,” Allen said soon afterward. “Our job is not to turn people out. That is the job of the candidates — to make people excited to go to the polls.”

Allen’s office did not respond to a request for comment about efforts to increase turnout.

Methodology for analysis

Turnout rates

For state turnout rates, States Newsroom used figures compiled by the U.S. Elections Project, run by Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida. The rates were computed from states’ “Voting Eligible Population” — giving the most accurate count possible of what share of a state’s population that could legally have cast a ballot actually did so.

No single election offers a perfectly fair comparison of state turnout rates, because the races on the ballot, and their level of competitiveness, vary from year to year, and this affects turnout. As a result, the average is made up of each state’s turnout rates from the last two national elections — 2020, when a presidential race was also on the ballot, and 2022, a non-presidential year.

New elections laws

To find new elections laws passed by the states this year, States Newsroom used the State Voting Rights Tracker, run by the Voting Rights Lab. The Tracker allows users to follow elections legislation introduced at the state level, and provides brief descriptions of each bill.

Ease of voting

To determine how easy a state makes voting, States Newsroom used the Cost of Voting Index, a system developed by Scot Schraufnagel, a political science professor at Northern Illinois University, Michael Pomante, a research associate at States United Democracy Center, a pro-democracy advocacy group, and Quan Li, a data scientist at Catalist, which manages data for progressive organizations.

The index, which has been used by The New York Times to assess state voting policies, gives each state a numerical score based on multiple factors. These include: whether a state offers automatic, same-day, and/or online voter registration; whether and how much early voting a state provides; whether a state allows voters to vote by mail without an excuse; how long a state’s voters must wait in line to cast their ballots; how restrictive a state’s voter ID rules are; and whether a state makes Election Day a holiday.


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