Coming down from an exciting campaign, all that’s left to discuss is how poorly Americans participated. It has become an almost expected epilogue to our elections; turnout is bad relative to how good we used to be at it, as well as how unfavorably we compare to other democracies in the world.
Don’t get me wrong, our turnout is not good. According to the latest estimates, voter turnout nationally in 2014 for top of the ticket contests was 36.4% compared to 40.9% in 2010. But whether it is historically bad or not, in our rush for some analysis of what happened, we seemingly forget that midterm elections are extremely difficult to compare cycle over cycle. Unlike during presidential elections when every voter’s ballot includes the same top of ticket contest, midterm elections feature a varying mix of states, some with statewide federal contests and some without, which yields a different playing field from which to calculate turnout every four years.
Whether the states with competitive contests are large or small, competitive or not matters when it comes to aggregating turnout nationally. This year, we had a lot of competitive races…in relatively small states. The big states—where the majority of voters are—by contrast did not see close statewide contests. So we should not be surprised when a look at the data reveals why turnout decreased from 2010 to 2014.
First, a note about the available data on which much has been written. We do not know total turnout yet because our nation’s dedicated election officials are still counting and certifying the vote, a process that always extends for days and weeks after Election Day. What we have right now are estimates of voter eligible turnout based on the estimated vote totals for the top of the ticket in each state. Dr. Michael McDonald at the University of Florida has the best publicly available data around, and all data shown below are based on his estimates found here. Even he cautions that voter eligible turnout data is better when comparing total ballots cast, not top of the ticket.
Different Senate seats are contested in different cycles. In 2014, there were 36 seats in the Senate up for election (including specials) in 34 different states, which means that 16 states did not have a statewide federal race. In 2010, there were 36 states with Senate contests. Of course the states without a Senate contest in 2014 are not the same as the ones in 2010. Importantly, in 2014, 11 of the 16 states without a unifying statewide Senate race on the ballot are in the top-20 of states in terms of population. Of those 11 large states, all saw turnout declines relative to 2010 turnout except for two: Florida and Wisconsin.
Sometimes a gubernatorial race can counter the expected decrease in turnout without a statewide federal race. That’s likely why Florida and Wisconsin saw modest turnout increases over 2010. But the other nine large states did not have even hotly contested governor’s races. For example, in Ohio, Gov. Kasich won reelection by 31 percentage points, nearly doubling his opponent’s vote total. In Pennsylvania, Governor-elect Wolf defeated Governor Corbett by almost 10 percentage points. In New York, Governor Cuomo was reelected by more than 13 percentage points. In California, Gov. Brown defeated his opponent by nearly 19 percentage points.
Yes, voter turnout is down since the last midterm four years ago, but we should all be more careful trying to divine a meaning from that statistic. When discussing turnout, it is clear that which offices and what candidates are on the ballot matters.
|2014 VEP Highest Office*||2010 VEP Highest Office||Change 2010 to 2014||Senate Race 2014||Senate Race 2010||State Rank Pop|
|District of Columbia||30.30%||28.90%||1.40%|
|New York||29.50%||25.50%||-6.00%||X (reg. and spec)||3|
|Oklahoma||29.80%||38.80%||-9.00%||X (reg. and spec)||X||28|
|South Carolina||34.90%||39.90%||-4.80%||X (reg. and spec)||X||24|
|West Virginia||31.80%||36.80%||-5.00%||X||X (special)||38|