Three days from Tuesday’s moment in this election marathon, there is plenty we don’t know. As someone famously said, there are Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns. We are all holding our collective breaths for the outcomes, from the Presidency to control of state legislative chambers, and for the resilience of our democratic process in general.
But one thing we can say with some confidence is that there will be a record turnout in this election. As of this Friday evening, over 86,300,000 people have already voted. This is measured against 137 million people who voted in 2016, and a Total Voting Eligible Population of 239 million people, according to Professor Michael McDonald and the U.S. Elections Project. While it is too early to say that this extraordinary early vote are new voters and not just the same voters voting earlier, it seems clear that turnout this year will almost certainly be over 150 million votes cast; it could well go over 160 million.
There are lots of reasons for this, but I want to highlight one that is not properly credited. So many people are voting early because people have successfully fought to open the process of registration and voting over the last twenty years, building off the trailblazing work of the civil rights movement. Major expansions of opportunities for people to register and vote were increasingly the norm before any of the adjustments because of COVID-19.
A full accounting would take far longer, but consider these comparisons, first in voter registration options:
• In 2000, six states had Same Day Registration (SDR), which studies have shown boosts turnout 5-7 percent. In 2020, 21 states and Washington, D.C. are offering voters this chance.
• In 2002, Arizona became the first state to provide for online voter registration; today it operates in 40 states.
• Only five years ago, no states had automatic voter registration (AVR), which proactively and automatically registers people when they visit the Department of Motor Vehicles and sometimes other agencies. Oregon was the first adopter in 2016, and 16 states and DC now have the procedure in place.
• Over the last twenty years, according to The Sentencing Project (which has led the way on this issue), 24 states have made it more possible for people with felony convictions to vote. There are still 5.2 million people who are ineligible, but that is down from 6.1 million in 2016—despite efforts in Florida to throw roadblocks at the implementation of Amendment 4 in restoring ex-felon voting rights, which passed in 2018 with an overwhelming Yes vote.
• In 23 states, sixteen and/or seventeen year-olds can pre-register, making high school registration efforts possible and effective.
Even more striking than these registration actions: several additional options for voters to actually cast their votes have opened up in the last several years.
• Early in-person voting has increased steadily and dramatically. In 2000, 29 states allowed people to vote early. This year, it is available in 43 states along with Washington, D.C. Early voting takes pressure off the crushes of election day, but also allows far more people to vote in person than a one-day Tuesday election day. Of the 85 million people who have voted so far, 31 million are early in-person votes.
• The expansion of voting by mail has been a huge development. While court challenges by Republicans seeking to undermine mail-in voting have dragged into the final week of the election, states have made adjustments this year that have made this critical mechanism more available, including twelve states that mailed applications to every registered voter, and four—California, Nevada, New Jersey, and Vermont—which mailed actual ballots to every registered voter. Even before this year, five states—Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado, California, and again the District of Columbia—were conducting their elections almost entirely by mail. The results have been high turnout rates, efficient systems for tracking and counting, and, need we say it, no discernible voting fraud.
None of this is meant to breeze by, or minimize, the disgraceful attempts by the Trump campaign, Republican parties in many states, and some Republican legislatures to undermine voting options and hold down the vote. But it is important to note that there have been heroic efforts by voting rights organizations to fight back against these tactics, with significant (though not universal) success.
These democracy-expanding efforts have not just been defensive. The gains in voting access catalogued here are the result of tenacious and sustained efforts by organizations, who have made expanding voting rights and improving our democracy the central focus of their efforts since the 2000 election. They have been joined increasingly by labor organizations, women’s organizations, environmental organizations, and gun safety advocates, all of whom have recognized that making our democracy work better is critical to successful efforts on so many issues. These efforts should not be overlooked, and are bearing fruit today.
What lessons are there here for future work? The major implication is to truly embrace the conclusion that these ‘process reforms’ really matter. This was true in the 2018 elections, and it is already hugely true in 2020. Working toward a fully inclusive democracy, with an level playing field for all, will make government more responsive and help restore a good share of lost faith in our system. And it will prevent the still-present specter of minority rule from pulling the country backward.
That said, there’s more work to be done. If there is a Biden administration and a Democratic House and Senate, the passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act and the adoption of the comprehensive reforms represented in HR 1 should be at the top of the federal legislative agenda.
Perhaps even more important, there will very likely be new opportunities in states to pass innovative and expansive measures to encourage people to vote. Some of those will be to make permanent the pandemic-induced expansions from this year. Some will be to further expand voter registration. And maybe a really bold state will adopt ‘universal civic duty voting’, making the act of participation a required civic duty for every citizen. It is a concept we have utilized for serving on juries for many years, and which Australia has successfully used for 96 years—with participation rates consistently around 90 percent. If we know that making the process more inclusive works, this could be a time for thinking big about continuing to move that needle.
Days Until the Election
Today I Learned, Election Edition
- A survey of ballot measures nationwide, and when we should expect results. (FiveThirtyEight)
- An even more comprehensive elections tracker from @Taniel. (What’s on the Ballot)
- This appeals court order is an obvious attempt to steal the Minnesota election. (The Week)
- Trump campaign targeting 2016 voters who dropped off in 2018, but losing others in the process. (Wall Street Journal)
- Great piece from Marcia Brown on the Pennsylvania Women for Biden-Harris Facebook group, which has an astounding 124,000 members. (The American Prospect)
- Alarms sounding among some in the Biden camp on Black and Latino turnout. (Bloomberg)’
- The three states Trump’s eyeing for post-election lawsuits make up his hypothetical map: Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Nevada. (Axios)
- John Cornyn has a resume inflation problem. (Salon)