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These states are most likely to boost turnout — despite the pandemic

The Cost of Voting Index is keeping tabs on which states have made it easier to vote this year.

- October 7, 2020

Less than a month before a hotly contested presidential election, states have been grappling with ways to make it easier to vote during the coronavirus pandemic and keep people socially distanced. Court challenges in states like South Carolina and Texas allege the pandemic circumstances are a reason for election officials to remove specific obstacles to voting. In other states, officials have adopted various policies to increase citizens’ access to voting by mail, to address concerns about the spread of the virus.

But low voter participation has long been a hallmark of U.S. elections, with wide variations in turnout between states in pre-pandemic times. Will these temporary electoral policies increase a state’s turnout in 2020? Here’s what our research suggests.

Understanding the “cost of voting”

In 2018, my co-authors and I published the Cost of Voting Index, which assigns a value and then ranks each state based upon its adoption of electoral policies and how difficult those policies make it for citizens to vote. Examples of these policies include the number of days before an election a voter must be registered, automatic voter registration, the number of early voting days, absentee voting restrictions and voter ID laws, among others.

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To understand the construction of the index, imagine a race with 50 runners, one for each state. Every runner adjusts their starting position based upon their state’s election laws. So policies that reduce the cost of voting — automatic voter registration, for instance — move the runner closer to the finish line while policies that increase costs — like a longer lead time required for voter registration — move the runner further back. This means some states have a much lower cost of voting because their “runner” in this analogy has to exert substantially less energy than those who started further back.

States have issued temporary covid-19 voting rules

The effect of electoral policies is not equal — some of the temporary covid-19 policies are likely to reduce the burdens associated with voting more than others.

Six states (Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Kentucky, New Hampshire and West Virginia) allow voters to give covid-19 as their excuse for requesting an absentee ballot — but this has no effect on the cost of voting tabulation because the state still requires an acceptable excuse to obtain an absentee ballot by mail.

Delaware, Massachusetts and Missouri made temporary changes to allow no-excuse absentee voting — this move effectively lowers the cost of voting in these states, because voters don’t have to justify their decision to vote by mail.

And four states (California, Nevada, New Jersey and Vermont) have temporarily removed the burden of requesting a ballot by mail and joined the five states that consistently implement all-mail elections. All-mail elections decrease the cost of voting because there is no burden placed upon the citizen to request a ballot.

Other states, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, removed the burden of requesting an absentee ballot by mailing all registered voters an application to request one. Michigan’s secretary of state mailed absentee applications indicating that current law allowed the action, while Pennsylvania passed a temporary measure to make this happen. As a result, our index recognizes only Pennsylvania as having reduced the cost of voting.

Here’s how I did my research

Typically, my co-authors and I generate one index per election cycle; however, given the extraordinary circumstances this year, we calculated two indexes for 2020. The first index only accounts for enshrined laws, while the second index includes any temporary changes due to covid-19 (as implemented by Sept. 1, 2020). Values in the first index range from a low of -1.69 (Oregon has the lowest cost of voting) to a high of 1.29 (Texas has the highest cost). For the second index, reflecting changes enacted over the summer, the values range from a low of -1.59 (Washington state) to a high of 1.38 (Texas).

After computing each index, I calculated the net change in the cost of voting values between the first and the second indexes for each state. This difference allows me to estimate the effect of these temporary policies on expected turnout.

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How will 2020’s temporary policies affect voter turnout?

Of course, it’s difficult to predict overall voter turnout in 2020. Analysts expect the highly charged political atmosphere to increase turnout — yet voters concerned about contracting coronavirus may stay home, lowering turnout at the polls. However, our research demonstrates that any policy that reduces the difficulty of voting ultimately means more people vote.

To get an idea about the influence of these temporary policy changes, I focus on the five states that had the largest shifts in rankings, between the two indexes: Nevada (moved up 10 spots), California (up 4), Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania (each up 2). The extent of the effect of a temporary policy will vary depending on the extent to which it altered the difficulty of voting.

States that didn’t implement any temporary election policy due to covid-19 saw no change in their index scores, but perhaps fell slightly in the overall rankings as other states moved ahead. And states that adopted all-mail voting saw the largest movement in their index scores. States that altered aspects of their absentee voting policies also saw an increase in their index scores, but not to the extent of the states that adopted all-mail voting.

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Using information gathered from 2016, my co-authors and I found that when a state’s cost of voting index value increases by one it experiences a decrease of approximately 3.31 percent in voter turnout. To calculate the increase in voter turnout, I calculate the differences between the first index (enshrined laws only) and the second index (includes temporary laws for 2020) and multiply it by that factor to gauge the projected increase in voter turnout.

The table below reports those values and the additional numbers of citizens likely to cast ballots due to the implementation of the temporary policies in each state.

How temporary covid-19 voting policies may affect turnout in five states

Figure by Michael J. Pomante, II. Number of voters projected using Cost of Voting Index findings and each state’s voting-eligible population, http://www.electproject.org/2020p.
How temporary covid-19 voting policies may affect turnout in five states

Figure by Michael J. Pomante, II. Number of voters projected using Cost of Voting Index findings and each state’s voting-eligible population, http://www.electproject.org/2020p.

The estimated increase in voter turnout ranges from approximately one-fifth of 1 percent to just under 1 percent. While these percentages appear minute, the result ultimately could be tens of thousands of individuals voting who would have otherwise abstained if the temporary law had not been enacted, as the table suggests.

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Michael J. Pomante II is an assistant professor of political science and public policy at Jacksonville University and the Public Policy Institute in Jacksonville, Florida.