Through all of the twists and turns of this election, I’ve been confident about one thing: record-breaking turnout. Obviously, with the spread of a pandemic, I’ve started to question my projection a bit.
I first wrote about the potential for a record-setting turnout in December 2018, and for the most of the cycle it looked like a pretty safe bet.
According to the United States Election Project, turnout in 2018 was nearly 50 percent of the voting-eligible population, the highest for a midterm in more than a century. And President Donald Trump has consistently shown an ability to excite and turn out Republicans and Democrats.
Going back to 1914, the last midterm year when turnout surpassed 2018, the record for turnout in a presidential cycle was 63.8 percent in 1960, when John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon. For some comparison, turnout was 61.6 percent in 2008, when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama mobilized a new coalition of Democratic voters, and 60.1 percent in 2016, when Trump mobilized a new coalition of Republicans. Over the past century, the average difference in turnout between a midterm and a subsequent presidential election has been 16 points. That would pin 2020 turnout at about 66 percent, setting a record.
Why it could drop
Now, with entire major cities on lockdown and millions more Americans semi-self-voluntarily staying home except to retrieve flour from the local grocery store, it’s hard to gauge the appetite for standing in line for a few hours to vote.
We’re still seven months away from the fall elections, which feels like an eternity when each day can feel like a month. And no one can confidently predict the health of the nation in the fall. But in trying to look beyond our present circumstances, there are a few factors that could diminish turnout, along with a few that could lead to that modern high-water mark.
It’s not unreasonable to believe turnout will be depressed in the fall.
How many voters will be physically unable to vote? Whether it’s because of hospitalization or quarantine, voting might be difficult or impossible for a large number of people, depending on the country’s ability to contain the coronavirus.
How many voters might be too afraid to vote? Even if lockdowns are lifted and the country is finding a new normal, people might not be comfortable enough with standing for long periods of time in close proximity to a lot of other people to vote.
How many voters will be too confused to vote? It’s possible that some typical polling places are necessarily moved because they were located in or near a senior living facility to protect older Americans. That could lead to confusion and lower turnout. News about shifting primary dates could also lead to confusion about the date of the general election, even if it’s not moved.
Finally, how many voters are too weary to vote? After months of battling the pandemic, it’s possible that Americans are too beaten down — physically, emotionally, professionally — to the point where voting isn’t close to a priority.
Why it could surge
Depressed turnout is not a given, however.
States have the opportunity to make it easier to vote. Whether it’s following Oregon’s lead with an all vote-by-mail process, making it easier to vote by mail, providing more opportunities to vote early or other measures, it’s possible to accommodate the situation, including people who will have a hard time voting in a traditional way.
States can communicate clearly when the election is being held and instill confidence that when people show up to vote, they’ll be met with a clean and orderly situation that follows the proper protocols at the time. This will also need to happen to ensure there are enough poll workers.
Finally, Americans could see this election as an opportunity. After months of crisis leading up to the election, voters will be ready to either reward current politicians for successfully leading through one of the most difficult times in our country’s history or punish current leaders for their response.
That’s why I’m not ready to back away from projecting record-setting turnout just yet. Unfortunately, because of the circumstances, people are going to have plenty of time to reflect on the role of government in their lives and realize the stakes are too high to not vote.
Whether or not people want to acknowledge them in the middle of a crisis, these elections are going to happen. They will be a prime opportunity to elect the next set of officials to lead the country into our next chapter.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.