You probably know voter turnout on November 6 was high for a midterm election. But that it was so very high, relatively speaking, is one of the underplayed stories of the election.
The best unofficial chronicler of turnout rates, University of Florida political scientist (and proprietor of the United States Elections Project) Michael McDonald, estimates total midterm turnout at just under 116 million. That’s well under the 138 million or so Americans who voted in the 2016 presidential election. But turnout is never, ever, as high in midterms as in presidential elections. And an apples-to-apples comparison of midterm voting as a percentage of the Voting Eligible Population (VEP) shows that 2018’s 49 percent is the highest recorded in the last 25 midterms, dating back to 1914.
Turnout was certainly up sharply from the last midterm in 2014, when only 37 percent of eligible voters participated. And while turnout was up nearly everywhere (the exceptions being Alaska, which had a Senate race up in 2014, and Louisiana, which had no big statewide races this year), some of the biggest jumps were in states with red-hot races. States where turnout was up by more than 15 percent over 2014 included Missouri (19.6 percent), Nevada (17.9), Virginia (17.8), Texas (17.5), Indiana (17.4), California (17.1) Georgia (16.4) and Vermont (15.5) — a good mix of blue and red states. The highest-turnout states generally included traditional turnout-champ Minnesota (64.3 percent), followed by two all-mail-ballot states, Colorado (61.9) and Oregon (61.3), and then intensely polarized Wisconsin (61.2) and Montana (60.6).
It’s anyone’s guess what this means for 2020 or the next midterm in 2022. Turnout was 60.1 percent in 2016 after that abysmal 37 percent in 2014. Overall, turnout in presidential races has been better in this millennium (60.1 percent in 2004, 61.6 percent in 2008, 58.6 percent in 2012) than in the quarter-century before it (the lowest was 51.7 percent in 1996, barely above 2018). All other things being equal, competitive races boost turnout. But there’s not much question 2018 turnout was significantly goosed by the Trump Factor, it being a referendum on the most polarizing president in living memory. Since (assuming he continues to run) 2020 will literally determine whether this strange man stays or goes, the odds of relatively heavy turnout are very good. America’s voter turnout rates, even in a “good” year, trail those in most of the world. But in a silver lining for our currently vicious political culture, things are looking up.