Bill Theobald is senior writer at The Fulcrum, where he focuses on everything to do with voting. This December marks his 40th anniversary in the business, and he still believes -- now more than ever -- that the glow from great journalism can truly light the world.
To quote the great 1970s power ballad: Two out of three ain't bad.
That Meat Loaf gold record provides a good summation for the record-breaking turnout in the presidential election: It looks like almost exactly two out of every three eligible Americans voted.
That's an estimated 159.4 million adult citizens, 20.5 million more than the previous high four years ago. And it's the strongest turnout rate since 1900 — when, by the way, women still did not have the franchise and most Black citizens and other people of color were effectively blocked from the ballot box.
Why the "ain't bad" summary, then? Because the total nonetheless means nearly 80 million people who had the right to vote decided not to. Because this year does not change how the United States still ranks near the bottom of the world's developed democracies when it comes to election participation. And because while the youth vote increased significantly, half of the population younger than 30 still did not go to the polls for a presidential election highly consequential to their future.
The numbers, which will be finalized as results get certified in the coming weeks, give advocates for a more functional democracy plenty to celebrate but also lots to keep worrying about.
Bigger shares of people voted this year than in 2016 in every state. And in all but three states — Mississippi, Missouri and Oklahoma — the turnout was better than in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president. That year saw the highest overall turnout (62 percent) of the past half century until now.
The largest increases over four years ago were in Hawaii at 12 percentage points, Arizona and Washington at 10 points, and Utah and Vermont at 9 points.
Hawaii had decided before the coronavirus pandemic to switch to elections almost entirely by mail, as Washington and Utah had done in time for the 2016 contest. Vermont was among the five states, plus D.C., that reacted to Covid-19 by mailing ballots to all active registered voters.
Turnout was 76 percent in the two other states where vote-by-mail was standard practice before this year, Colorado and Oregon, placing them in the top five for best civic participation along with perennial top-finishers Minnesota (80 percent) and Maine (79 percent) plus presidential battleground Wisconsin (76 percent).
Credit democracy reformers
To be sure, much of the turnout surge can be attributed to the heightened passions and polarizing politics of the presidential contest, which former Vice President Joe Biden has won with 306 electoral votes — and at least 5.8 million more popular votes than President Trump.
But dozens of groups in the world of good governance, which made problem-free voting during the pandemic their galvanizing cause this year, deserve credit as well.
"In an election in which our democracy itself really was on the ballot, the democracy reform movement had a major impact — especially in pushing back against voter suppression targeting racial minorities," Zachary Roth wrote in an assessment of turnout for the Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive think tank.
In the end, 34 states decided to make it easier to cast a ballot this fall — either voluntarily or as the result of a lawsuit, but always under pressure from an array of democracy groups. After asking for 10 times as much, they also persuaded Congress to send $400 million to the states to make voting during the pandemic easier and safer.
Four states expanded the availability of polling places ahead of Election Day, while most of the other changes encouraged voting by mail and eased the rules governing the completion of absentee ballots.
Beyond the six places that switched to universal vote-by-mail for this year only, 10 states encouraged the use of absentee ballots by sending all their voters an application form. A dozen effectively abandoned normal excuse requirements for not voting in person. Four decided to pay the postage on mailed ballots. Seven reduced or dropped requirements for a witness or notary signature on envelopes, while at least four others agreed to give voters a chance to fix (or "cure") missing signatures or other flaws instead of simply having the mailed ballots thrown out.
The result was 65.5 million valid absentee ballots returned through the mail or in drop boxes by Election Day — double the total four years before and about two of every five votes cast in the entire contest.
Registration is key
Law professor Justin Levitt of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, an expert on voting, argued that while all the voting ahead of time (another 36 million ballots were cast in person before Nov. 3) eased some of the pressure on Election Day, it probably didn't cause much of an increase in turnout.
While no-excuse absentee voting boosts participation in low-turnout elections like off-year municipal races, he said, it has proved to have only a "fairly modest" effect on turnout in presidential and midterm years.
"But the single most important gateway to voting is registration," Levitt said by email. "So 21st-century registration reforms (like automatic and portable voter registration, with an election day registration failsafe) have reliably seemed not only to boost turnout, but to increase accuracy and reduce costs."
Nineteen states (plus D.C.) allowed residents to both register and vote on Election Day this year, and a couple more will soon join them. The National Conference of State Legislatures, citing multiple studies, says same-day registration adds an average of 5 percent to turnout.
But even a quarter of the people registered did not vote this time. The World Population Review, a company that aggregates demographic statistics, said 214.3 million people were registered to vote — meaning that turnout was 74 percent of those on the registration rolls.
Who didn't vote, and why
So what do those 80 million non-voters — including 55 million who signed up to vote — have to say for themselves? The politics site FiveThirtyEight worked with the pollster Ipsos on a survey released just before Election Day that looked at that question in a creative way.
Instead of just asking people why they don't vote, pollsters interviewed more than 8,000 eligible Americans and asked a series of questions about politics and voting. They were then able to match the names of 6,000 of those people to their voting histories and could analyze the attitudes associated with infrequent or never voting.
Generally, the non-voters were younger, poorer and less educated than people for whom voting is a regular practice — and also less likely to identify with a political party.
The attitudes associated with low-frequency or non-voters included the belief that:
- They didn't like any of the candidates.
- The system is too broken, so voting doesn't matter.
- All candidates are the same, so why vote.
- They don't believe in voting.
- It doesn't matter if they vote.
- No one is talking about issues important to me..
We're No. 30
Another sad statistic, unlikely to change too much even with the large jump in turnout this year, is how low the United States ranks in political engagement among developed democracies.
Based on the most recent national election figures before this year, the U.S. ranked 30th in turnout among 35 nations belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international body focused mainly on boosting member economies and trade.
Compulsory voting in a handful of countries — Australia is the biggest credible democracy where exercising the franchise is mandatory — is one factor that contributes to higher turnout. And a 2003 study by Canadian election officials, of 151 elections in 61 democracies over more than a decade, found turnout was 10 points higher in countries that allowed voting by mail or in advance of the final election day.
One part of the turnout picture that again received a lot of attention was the effort to get more young adults to the polls — a quadrennial effort by civic activists and partisans alike, who say every time that younger voters are poised to cast the decisive vote in an election where they may have the most at stake. This time those efforts paid off, but only by some measures.
Half of citizens ages 18 to 29 voted this year (50 to 52 percent), and that rate may go higher when the tally is finalized, according to an estimate by Tufts University's Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which focuses on the youth vote. That compares to an estimated 42 to 44 percent in 2016.
But even with this increase, turnout by young people was nowhere close to the 66 percent nationwide share. And the national exit poll pegged their share of the electorate at 16 percent, about in line with their share of the population but down 3 points from their percentage of all votes cast in 2016.
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An all-star cast of national security officials from Republican and Democratic administrations on Monday pulled out what they hope will be the "Trump card" that compels the incumbent president to concede the election and permit his successor to start receiving intelligence briefings and build his team of experts.
Their ace-in-the-hole argument: Remember Sept. 11.
But the pleas from the likes of two former secretaries of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano and Michael Chertoff, continued to fall on deaf ears. On the 10th day since election results made it clear he had lost, President Trump was back on Twitter claiming "I won the Election."
Amid his flurry of six tweets pressing various conspiracy theories, Trump's lawyers appeared to abandon their only legal argument involving enough votes to potentially upend the outcome in one of the states decisive in his defeat. In this case, Pennsylvania.
So far, Trump has not allowed President-elect Joe Biden to begin receiving the daily intelligence briefings that are a key part of keeping track of threats to the United States. And the presidential appointee in charge of the General Services Administration, Emily Murphy, has refused to sign the document that would free up money and office space for the Biden transition team.
At a news conference sponsored by a coalition of democracy reform groups, Napolitano, a Democrat, and Chertoff, a Republican, each cited the final report by the 9/11 Commission, which said the disputed 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush caused a delay in Bush nominating and winning Senate confirmation for top national security positions. And that in turn led to a "disruption of national security policymaking" that contributed to the government's inability to prevent the al-Qaida attacks.
Former GOP Gov. Tom Kean of New Jersey, who was chairman of the 9/11 Commission, noted that the report recommended a smooth transition between administrations. He called it "criminal" that Biden was not able to receive the daily intelligence briefing.
The officials were convened by a pair of coalitions assembled to push for an orderly end to the election, the National Task Force on Election Crises and Citizens for a Strong Democracy, along with the democracy reform group, Issue One. (It owns, but is journalistically walled off from, The Fulcrum.)
But the panelists conceded that there was not much that could be done, beyond encouraging public pressure, to force the transition process ahead.
Hope for progress toward a belated but orderly transfer of power emerged like a tiny sapling in a fire-ravaged forest on Sunday, when Trump seemed to offer the cutest possible concession and then took it back.
Without using Biden's name, Trump said that "He won" as part of a tweet making more baseless claims about a "rigged" election. But when his comments were widely interpreted as his first public acknowledgment of the election's real result, Trump quickly reversed course.
By Monday, Trump was back to claiming victory on Twitter and continuing to claim fraud. One sample: "The Radical Left Democrats, working with their partner, the Fake News Media, are trying to STEAL this Election. We won't let them!"
Many of his tweets included Twitter-imposed disclaimers noting that his statements were in dispute.
I won the Election!— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump)1605534704.0
On the legal front, his campaign on Sunday dropped a major part of a federal lawsuit challenging the election results in Pennsylvania. His attorneys filed a revised lawsuit removing charges that election officials violated the campaign's rights by limiting the ability of its observers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to watch the votes being counted. Their hope was to get 682,479 tabulated votes tossed out as a result.
What remains of the lawsuit, even if true, is not going to cause the result of the Pennsylvania race to change, Democratic officials said. But Trump campaign officials said their argument could still result in several hundred thousand votes being disallowed. Biden carried its 20 electoral votes by 56,000 votes.
The Trump team already has piled up a string of additional losses in its attempts to use the courts to reverse the election outcome or at least sow doubt about the process.
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So, if this were a normal presidential election year, the country would already be focusing its attention on the next big event in the life cycle of our democracy — Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, with Joe Biden being sworn in as the 46th American president.
But almost nothing about this election has been normal, of course. Witness, most recently, President Trump's refusal to concede defeat in the face of overwhelming evidence he's lost decisively. And his stubbornness, buttressed by the passions of millions of fervent supporters and the passiveness of the Republican Party's other leaders, makes it important to understand the presidential contest's complicated path over the coming weeks.
One way to think about it is like a game with really arcane rules but a usually predictable outcome: "Win the Electoral College." The players move their pieces along the right path, hoping to reach the finish without taking dangerous side trips that set them back along the way.
Usually it works that way, but not always — a bit like an analogous kids' game, "Chutes and Ladders." Here's what the board looks like:
Stop 1: Select the electors
Sometime earlier in the year the Republican and Democratic parties of each state (and the District of Columbia) chose people to be their slates of electors if their presidential and vice presidential ticket ends up carrying their state — one for each member of Congress (House and Senate) in that state. Except for Nebraska and Maine, the states use the winner-takes-all approach for awarding their electoral votes. (In those states, two electoral votes go to the popular vote winner statewide and one to the vote winner in each congressional district.)
Stop 2: Ascertain the vote
As soon as possible after Election Day, officials in each state prepare "Certificates of Ascertainment" listing the electors who correspond to the winner of the popular vote. Each state prepares multiple copies of these documents. One goes to the Archivist of the United States. The state's have an incentive to get any disputes resolved by Dec. 8, which is considered under federal law as the "safe harbor" deadline. That means the results agreed to by then are considered conclusive.
Stop 3. Electors meet and vote
On Dec. 14, the electors are to gather in each state to cast their votes for president and vice president. The electors vote by paper ballot. They record the totals on Certificates of the Vote, which are paired with the Certificates of Ascertainment and sent to the president of the Senate — in this case, Mike Pence, the GOP candidate for another term as vice president.
Possible side trip 1
Here is the first point where the process could go down a chute. Some conservatives argue the Constitution allows for state legislatures to substitute their own slate of electors for those supporting the will of the most voters in the state. Since Republicans control the legislatures in all four battlegrounds that Biden has carried (or looks destined to carry) by less than 1 percentage point — Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, with a combined 57 electoral votes — they could argue the results are tainted by fraud or irregularities and that unprecedented moves are warranted to assure the re-election of Trump as the rightful winner.
Wrong, say a whole slew of legal experts and Biden backers. Even the urban-legend-destroying website Snopes has concluded this strategy is a no-go. The key, they say, is that Article II of the Constitution allows state legislatures to decide "the manner " in which electors are chosen. But if they were going to do that, many election lawyers say, it had to be done prior to Election Day — and since all these states have decided that the popular vote determines the slate of electors, it's too late to change now.
Adav Noti, senior director at the Campaign Legal Center, dismissed the idea of GOP legislatures going rogue. "It shouldn't be a serious topic of discussion," he said. But Ned Foley of Ohio State's law school seemed to give the strategy some credence while decrying it at the same time in a widely circulated op-ed.
Possible side trip 2
Some assert that no law explicitly requires the electors chosen to represent one party's nominees must actually vote for those people. So, the argument goes, Republicans could try to win over some electors who seem committed to vote for Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris.
This argument has many challenges — starting with how rare so-called faithless electors have been: Ten voted or tried to vote for somebody they were not supposed to last time, but just nine did so in all the other 17 elections since World War II. Second, Biden's probable margin of victory in the Electoral College is 74 votes, an enormous hurdle for a rogue group to overcome. Finally, five states have penalties for a deviant voter, and 14 allow a faithless elector's ballot to be tossed and the elector replaced — laws the Supreme Court upheld unanimously this summer.
Stop 4: The votes are counted
At 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 6, the members of the newly elected Congress will gather in a joint session and listen as the electoral votes are announced by state in alphabetical order. When the count is complete, the presidential and vice presidential winners will be announced by the presiding officer — Pence, once again.
Possible side trip 3
Members of Congress have the right to object to the electoral votes as they get announced. For an objection to be considered, though, it has to have the support of at least one House member and one senator. According to precedent, the only objections that get considered concern electors who were not legally chosen or whose votes were not legally cast. Any objections Pence rules in order are taken up in separate meetings by the House and Senate, who have no fixed deadlines for their deliberations. No electors can be rejected unless both the House and Senate agree. Given that Democrats control the House, that is not going to happen. Plus, the laws governing the challenges set up a presumption in favor of the legality of a state's electors.
So, there you have it. A smooth transition to a new administration or a knock-down, drag-out fight. Which do you expect?
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