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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 5/8/21

Voting Turnout Up in 2020 Due to Flexible Voting Options

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In the 2020 presidential election, 66 million Americans voted with a mailed-out ballot after most states loosened restrictions on qualifications to vote by mail to make voting safer in the pandemic. Another 36 million people voted in person at an early voting site before Election Day after many states expanded this option.

Together, more than 56 million voters cast a ballot in a different way than in 2016, which was "extraordinary," as one recent scholarly study said. North Carolina's increase in using mailed-out ballots, alone, was fivefold. Georgia's was sixfold. Wisconsin's was 15fold.

The presidential election set a turnout record and has since led to a record number of election administration bills in state legislatures, some preserving last fall's expanded voting options and others rolling back those choices. Those state-by-state fights have led to some of the highest-profile voting rights battles since the early 1960s. Both parties are claiming that their vision for political representation faces existential threats.

In recent weeks, an influential voice, election scholars, who rely on "observed facts and data," have begun to weigh in on what was most important, less so, and not at all important with helping 159 million Americans vote last fall. Their findings, while preliminary and sometimes contradictory, provide an important counterpoint to the partisan claims in the state-by-state voting rights battles.

An examination of a half-dozen academic draft papers, policy institute reports, and scholarly articles finds some consensus on which voting options boosted 2020's turnout. These options include mailing every registered voter in a state or county a ballot and allowing voters to register or update their registration information and then vote. But there were also conflicting data and assessments over specific voting regimes and rules that were suspended to help voters get a ballot into their hands.

Last year, 29 states and the District of Columbia passed 79 laws to institute a grab bag of options centered around using mailed-out ballots and early in-person voting. While lawmakers were concerned about making voting safer, these steps also made voting more convenient and accessible by cutting bureaucracy and extending deadlines.

In many respects, 2020 was an unprecedented and successful experiment in making voting more convenient. While broad findings about these trends are coming in -- including some work that has been misreported in the media -- further research will explore what options were embraced by voting blocs with historically low turnout rates, such as communities of color and younger voters.

"We are at the very beginning of a period in which academic researchers can study the 2020 election," said Rutgers University's Lorraine Minnite, a political scientist who has studied voter turnout issues for more than a decade. "What's coming out right now is preliminary. A fuller picture has yet to emerge, which is why you are seeing such disparate research designs and findings."

Contours of Voting in 2020

Nationally, 2020 saw the highest presidential election turnout in 116 years. Almost nobody expected that result last spring, when state and local election officials pivoted to more flexible methods of casting ballots that protected the health of all involved. Notably, 159.7 million Americans or 67 percent of registered voters cast ballots, 23.8 million more voters than in 2016.

The biggest-picture contours of voting options and turnout in 2020's general election -- voting last fall -- was the "America Goes to the Polls" report from Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Elections Project. Nonprofit VOTE works to increase participation. The U.S. Elections Project, founded by the University of Florida's Michael McDonald, created a national repository of early voting and vote-by-mail data.

In 2020, 45 percent of Americans voted with mailed-out ballots, they reported. Twenty-five percent of Americans voted early at an in-person voting site. The final 30 percent voted in person on Election Day. In 2016, in contrast, 21 percent of the presidential electorate voted with a mailed-out ballot and 60 percent voted at an Election Day poll. The highest and lowest turnout states in 2020 reflected different regimens -- from the starting line of voter registration to the finish line of getting and casting a ballot.

"All of the top 10 turnout states either sent all their voters a mail ballot, have same-day registration that allows voters to register or update their registration when they vote, or both," the Nonprofit VOTE/U.S. Elections Project report said. "Eight of the bottom 10 turnout states cut off voter registration four weeks before the election or required an excuse [on a separate application] to use a mail ballot."

Other policy reports and draft academic papers offered more detail on where there was a consensus about what voting options had the biggest impact on 2020's voter turnout. There was agreement that the states offering a same-day voter registration and voting option, which 24 states and the District of Columbia did in 2020, boosted turnout by 5 percent, as noted in the Nonprofit VOTE/U.S. Elections Project report.

There also was an affirmation of prior research that mailing a ballot to every registered voter in a state or county boosts turnout. In 2020, the increase, reported by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), averaged 3.9 percent nationwide in the 10 states and the District of Columbia that mailed registered voters a ballot. Of those, the six states and the District of Columbia that did this for the first time in 2020 saw voter turnout increase 4.6 percent.

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Steven Rosenfeld  covers democracy issues for AlterNet. He is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and has reported for National Public Radio, Monitor Radio, Marketplace,  and many newspapers. (more...)
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