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2020 Saw Record Voter Turnout in Missouri. Can We Keep That Going?

After a record voter turnout in the 2020 election, policies like early voting and automatic voter registration could encourage more elections with high turnouts in the future.
After a record voter turnout in the 2020 election, policies like early voting and automatic voter registration could encourage more elections with high turnouts in the future.

The 2020 election had a record turnout in Missouri and throughout the United States.  Can we keep this momentum going, or is this a fluke?

More than 3 million Missouri voters cast ballots in this year’s presidential election. It was the first time the state exceeded that threshold. Boone County had a 1.6% increase in registered voters and around 7,000 more people cast votes in this year’s election compared to the presidential election in 2016. The entire country had a strong turnout this year, recording a 66.2% turnout among the voting eligible population, according to the Washington Post.

Election analysts hope to maintain that high voter participation. But that might be a challenge because of America’s relatively low voter participation rates.

Historically, America has had low turnout rates compared to other countries. In the presidential election of 1900, America had a turnout of 73.7% among the voting eligible population, according to FairVote.org. However, that rate plummeted in the next few decades, reaching a low point of 48.9% in the presidential election of 1924.

Turnout has steadily climbed back up, and it has hovered around 60% of the voting eligible population since 2000. America falls behind most of its peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, most of whose members are highly developed democratic states. America ranked 30th out of 35 nations in voter turnout in 2016, according to a report by the Pew Research Center.

To understand how to increase voter turnout in the future, it’s important to know why people vote.

Charles Stewart III is the founder of the MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab. He says voters use two mechanisms to vote: a performed sense of identity and a cost-benefit analysis.

Stewart said for national elections, people are motivated to head to the polls to perform a civic duty as an American or for party affiliation. But in local elections, he said voters weigh the costs of voting, including the time and effort it takes, against the benefits they’d get.

In local elections, Stewart said the decisions voters make aren’t so much about emotional attachment.

“And so if you know, you have opinions about how your property taxes should be,” he said. “But, you don’t have the same emotional investment in it that you do with your party identification and your feelings about Donald Trump or your feelings about the Democratic Party.”

Stewart said when you take away that emotional, performative identity mechanism – what then becomes more important is the cost-benefit mechanism.

Because of that emotion factor, it’s harder to target how to improve turnout in national elections. But Stewart said in local elections in local elections, there are strategies to reduce the costs in voters’ cost-benefit analysis.

And increasing turnout in local elections could be even more important, as turnout rates are much lower for local elections than national. For instance, turnout in 10 of America’s 30 largest cities was less than 15% in their most recent local mayoral election, according to a 2016 report from Portland State University.

One policy proposal to increase local turnout is to add early voting in Missouri. Currently, there is no early voting in the state. While a voter can cast an absentee ballot before Election Day at a local county clerk’s office, they still need a permissible excuse to cast an absentee vote.

Early voting could drive higher turnout in local elections. But Boone County Clerk Brianna Lennon said increasing funding would be necessary for such a change.

“Making a big change like adding in early voting, which would require more staff or a reimagined way of doing an early voting process would require resources and an investment in order to do that,” she said.

But Lennon said a simple measure to increase turnout without requiring additional funding would be to allow no-excuse absentee voting. Missouri absentee voters must provide one out of seven reasons for voting absentee currently, including absence on Election Day or religious belief or practice. She says allowing no-excuse absentee could make it more convenient for voters.

Other policies like no-excuse absentee, early voting, mail-in ballots and automatic voter registration all could make it easier for voters to vote, driving down the cost of voting. Since the cost-benefit analysis is a driving factor in the mechanism to vote in local elections, these proposals could increase turnout in local and state elections.

Voter turnout across all elections could also remain high in the future because of voting becoming a popular culture trend this year. Celebrities - such as Beyonce, Selena Gomez and Jennifer Aniston - encouraged their fans and fellow Americans to head out and vote.

League of Women Voters of Missouri President Evelyn Maddox said this is the first time she’s seen celebrities and young people embrace voting as something that’s cool.

“As they sometimes say, voting is sexy,” Maddox said.  “You know they use the word sexy as a way of saying it’s an appealing thing to be doing.”

Americans will have to wait and see if turnout will remain high in future elections or if high turnout in this year’s election was just a byproduct of an emotional hyper-partisan presidential election in the middle of a pandemic.

Copyright 2020 KBIA