Early-Voting Laws Probably Don’t Boost Turnout

The newly minted Democratic majority in the House chose to devote its first piece of legislation to election reform, signaling just how important that issue has become to the party. While H.R. 1 has little chance of passing as long as the federal government remains divided, Democrats did take control of six more state governments in the 2018 midterm elections, and they are already moving swiftly to expand voting access on the state level.

So far, New York has made the biggest changes. Last Thursday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a package of election bills that consolidate New York’s state and federal primaries, allow teenagers to pre-register to vote1 and start the process of enacting same-day voter registration and making it easier to vote absentee. But arguably, the biggest reform was in-person early voting. Starting with this year’s local elections, New Yorkers will be able to cast their ballot over a period of nine days in late October and early November, spanning the two weekends before Election Day. The Empire State now joins 38 other states (plus the District of Columbia) that already allow people to vote prior to Election Day in one form or another.

Cuomo and other supporters hailed early voting as a cure for New York’s dismal voter turnout rate: The state ranked 44th in the nation2 in the 2018 general election and 39th in 2016. There’s just one problem: The data suggests that early voting actually doesn’t increase turnout — it just shifts when existing voters cast their ballots.

This is apparent at the national level: There is little correlation between the increased popularity of early voting and national turnout rates. From 2000 to 2014, early and mail-in votes went from accounting for 14.0 percent of all votes to 31.2 percent, according to Census Bureau calculations. Yet during that same period, the U.S. Elections Project found that presidential turnout rates ticked up only a few points, and midterm turnout rates held steady at around 40 percent.

We also see no increase in turnout at the state level. Massachusetts is the most recent state to implement early voting, which it did for the 2016 election. Turnout in Massachusetts that year was 67 percent — only one point higher than in 2012. That’s also the same amount that national turnout increased by, so it’s hard to attribute the state’s increase to early voting. Likewise, turnout in Massachusetts in 2016 was 8 points higher than the national average. That’s exactly the same as it was in 2012 and 2014, before early voting was implemented,3 so it looks like early voting has had little effect on turnout there so far.

Turnout also hasn’t increased in states where early voting is well established, such as Ohio, which enacted early voting4 in 2005. Its turnout rates have held steady relative to the national average in almost every election from 2000 to 20165 — between 2 and 8 points higher than the country as a whole.6 There is certainly no sign of consistently higher turnout post-2005.

Political scientists have arrived at the same conclusion. A 2007 paper out of Reed College looked at elections across the country from 1980 to 2004 and found no statistically significant link between early in-person voting and turnout rates. The study concluded that election reforms generally don’t affect turnout as much as campaign field efforts or voter enthusiasm do. Meanwhile, a more recent study by political scientists at the University of Wisconsin, Madison discovered that, when not accompanied by other reforms, early voting actually leads to lower turnout — perhaps because the social and campaign-driven pressure to vote is not as focused as it is when voting must all occur on a single day. Finally, the Government Accountability Office reviewed 20 early-voting studies in 2016 and found that most of them said that early in-person voting has either an insignificant or negative impact on turnout.

This doesn’t mean that early voting is a pointless reform; even if turnout remains steady, early voting can make the process more convenient or faster for existing voters. For example, a voter who might otherwise have to take time away from work to vote on Election Day can now cast her ballot on a weekend instead. But as a report from the Brennan Center for Justice points out, the main benefit might actually come from spreading voters out over multiple days, which makes Election Day lines shorter and eases day-of stress on polling places and poll workers. So while early voting can be useful, it should not be seen as a way to coax new voters out of the woodwork.

Split-Ticket Voting Hit A New Low In 2018 Senate And Governor Races

We went into Election Day with a hypothesis: Most Americans would cast a straight-ticket ballot — with some notable exceptions, which we’ll address in a moment. And we decided a good way to test this was to look at statewide races most likely to drive turnout in a midterm election cycle: U.S. Senate and governor contests.

There were 22 states that had races for both the Senate and governor on the ballot this election cycle. And what we found was the same party swept both offices in 16 of the 21 states where each race has been called23, with Democrats capturing both races in 12 states and Republicans doing so in four. Or, in other words, our hypothesis was mostly right — most Americans did vote for the same party in their Senate and governors race. But there were five states — Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio and Vermont — where voters chose a Republican governor and a Democratic senator.

And while we were interested in what happened in these five states (more in a moment), we also wanted to look at every state that had both a Senate and governor race on the ballot to see just how far apart the voting margins were. The idea was this will help us understand how uncommon — or common — split-ticket voting was in 2018. And we could then situate what happened in 2018 by looking at previous midterms to see if there was a trend in how much split-ticket voting occurred between these two offices. (Spoiler: Split-ticket voting hit a new low.)

To do this, I calculated the difference between the margin of victory in the Senate and gubernatorial races for each state using the Democratic and Republican vote shares in each contest.24 And as the table below shows, Massachusetts had the biggest difference between its vote share margin in its races for Senate and governor. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker won reelection by about 32 percentage points and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren garnered a second term with a roughly 26-point margin, producing a gap of 57 points. So, in other words, in hyper-blue Massachusetts roughly 25 to 30 percent of voters cast ballots for both Baker and Warren.25 Two other states, Vermont and Maryland, also had very large differences between their Senate and governor races — about 55 and 47 points, respectively. Along with Massachusetts, these races all featured relatively popular incumbent Republican governors — Phil Scott in Vermont and Larry Hogan in Maryland — running in strongly Democratic states that easily reelected incumbent Democratic senators. The popularity and independent streaks of these GOP governors clearly helped them overcome the sharply Democratic leans of their states.

Split ticket voting in statewide races is pretty rare

Difference between the size of the margin of victory in 2018 Senate and governor races

Senate Governor
State Winner Incumb. Margin Winner Incumb. Margin Difference
MA Warren +25.5 Baker +31.9 57.4
VT Sanders* +40.3 Scott +14.6 54.9
MD Cardin +33.4 Hogan +13.4 46.8
CT Murphy +20.2 Lamont +3.1 17
AZ Sinema +2.0 Ducey +14.4 16.5
HI Hirono +42.3 Ige +29.0 13.3
MN‡ Klobuchar +24.1 Walz +11.4 12.7
ME King* +19.0 Mills +7.6 11.5
TX Cruz +2.6 Abbott +13.3 10.7
NY Gillibrand +33.0 Cuomo +22.3 10.7
OH Brown +6.4 DeWine +4.2 10.6
TN Blackburn +10.8 Lee +21.1 10.2
WI Baldwin +10.9 Evers +1.1 9.7
NM Heinrich +23.5 Grisham +14.3 9.2
RI Whitehouse +23.0 Raimondo +15.5 7.6
PA Casey +12.8 Wolf +16.8 4
MI Stabenow +6.4 Whitmer +9.5 3
WY Barrasso +36.9 Gordon +39.8 2.9
NV Rosen +5.0 Sisolak +4.1 0.9
MN‡ Smith +10.6 Walz +11.4 0.8
NE Fischer +19.2 Ricketts +18.9 0.4

Election data as of 10 a.m. on Nov. 16, 2018. Only states with both a Senate and gubernatorial election that featured candidates from both major parties are included. This means California is excluded because no Republican candidate qualified for its Senate election. Florida is also not included because both its Senate and gubernatorial elections are still uncalled. Some data may not add up due to rounding.

*Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Maine Sen. Angus King are included as Democrats because they caucus with the party in the Senate.

‡Minnesota is included twice because it had two Senate elections this year.

Source: ABC NEWS

But these three states were notable outliers — no other state had a difference between their Senate and governor races that was greater than 17 points. That said, these less divided contests can still show you where a stronger candidate for one party may have made a difference. Take Tennessee’s Senate race, for instance. Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn defeated Democrat Phil Bredesen there, but Bredesen — a popular former governormade the Senate contest notably closer than the gubernatorial election.

Incumbency may have been a factor, too. Both the Tennessee Senate and gubernatorial races were open seats, but in another GOP-leaning state like Ohio, there was one incumbent on the ballot, which might help explain why Ohioans elected a Democratic senator and a Republican governor. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown won his race by about 6 points and Republican Mike DeWine won the open-seat governor race by 4 points. Given that Ohio is 7 points to the right of the country, Brown probably benefited at least some from an incumbency advantage The two races ran relatively close together — the difference was 11 points — suggesting that most voters voted for the same party in both contests.

But we were also interested in what would happen if we took a step back and zoomed out, looking at other midterm cycles and split-ticket voting. How would 2018 compare? It turns out that 2018 is part of a trend that shows fewer Americans are splitting their tickets (at least in races for the Senate and governors in midterm elections). This election had the smallest median difference of any midterm cycle going back to at least 1990 — 10 points.26

As you can see, even though 2018 has the lowest mark in the past three decades, the median difference from election cycle to election cycle has bounced around. Still, the overall trend is one of decline, at least since 1998. You might wonder why there are fairly regular ups and downs in the chart, but this can be explained by the number of elected governors running for re-election in each cycle.

For example, only eight incumbent governors ran in the 24 states included in my calculations for 2010, whereas in the 2014 cycle there were 16 states with incumbent governors. And what I found was cycles with fewer incumbent governors running tended to show less evidence of split-ticket voting (a lower median) while cycles with more incumbents demonstrated more evidence of split-ticket voting (a slightly higher median). Part of this is because governors often benefit from an incumbency advantage. As my colleague Nate Silver pointed out in his introduction to FiveThirtyEight’s governor forecast, partisanship explains less in gubernatorial elections than it does in federal contests, and therefore, incumbency might matter slightly more for governors than it does in either the House or Senate.

No matter which way you cut it, the difference between the margins in a state’s gubernatorial and Senate races has shrunk. More voters are casting straight-ticket ballots. There are exceptions, of course, but this shift matches what we know about the larger electoral picture: voters are more partisan and the country is more divided than it’s ever been in the modern era of U.S. politics.

CORRECTION (Nov. 19, 2018, 2:30 p.m.): A table in an earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated that the Democratic Senate candidate in Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema, was the incumbent. The race was for the seat that Republican Sen. Jeff Flake is retiring from.