More People Vote When They Know It Counts: A Case Study

Texas has been in the bottom five states for voter turnout for the past three presidential elections.  In the 2016 election, only 51.4% of eligible voters went to the polls, compared to 60.1% nationally

There are several reasons why Texas’s voter turnout rate is so much lower than the national average.  Texas is ranked as the state with the fifth highest difficulty of voting, according to a Northern Illinois University study that considered factors such as the registration deadline, restrictions on who is able to vote, ease of registration, the availability of early voting, voter ID laws, and poll hours. 

But voting difficulty does not fully explain Texas’s low turnout rate.  It is even more difficult to vote Virginia than it is in Texas.  Nevertheless, in 2016, despite obstacles to getting to the polls, voter turnout in Virginia 66.1%.

The difference is not that Virginians are more civic minded, or that Texans are lazy.  The differences is that, in recent elections, Virginians were told that their votes count more than Texans’ votes. In 2016, the presidential candidates hosted a total of 23 events in Virginia—the fifth highest of any state. The 2012 campaigns spent $21.6 million on advertising in Virginia—the third highest of any state.  Meanwhile, both parties ignored Texas, making little to no effort to court its voters.

However, in 2000, Virginia’s voter turnout was only 55.0%.  In the intervening years, Virginia shifted from a solidly Republican state to a swing state.  The increase in voter turnout in Virginia demonstrates that, even in states where it is very difficult to vote, people will make the effort if their votes may make a difference.  On the other hand, many Texans determined that it is not worth their time to vote for president because the result seemed pre-ordained. Though Texas and Virginia present particularly striking examples, voter turnout is generally lower in non-battleground states than in swing states lavished with the candidate’s attention.

But things are changing yet again.  Both parties may decide that Virginia is a safe state for the Democrats in 2020, and not bother visiting or spending money on ads and get-out-the-vote efforts.  In Texas, on the other hand, there is more and more talk that the old Republican stronghold may be shifting toward swing state status.  Accordingly, voter participation in Texas is likely to rise, but may fall in Virginia.

Wouldn’t it be better if every vote counted equally, no matter whether your state was a swing state in a given election? Under a national popular vote, 20 million or more voters as turnout surged across the country.