U.S. could face a voting deluge in November. Will states be ready for the storm?

These Georgia voters waited two hours in line in 2018 just to vote early. Imagine what the lines will be like on Election Day this November.

Polls and pundits across the country and the political spectrum predict that voter enthusiasm and turnout could be at an all-time high on Nov. 3. That’s true for people itching to vote for and against Donald Trump.

But how will officials in the country’s 8,000 election jurisdictions handle the flood of voters? If the high voter turnout in 2018 is any indication, they could have a torrent of problems. Consider this example from ProPublica about Melanie Taylor, a South Carolina voter determined to cast her vote back in 2018:

After 45 minutes, with the line still out the door, Taylor had to give up and leave for work. (She leads a social work program.) She’s planning to try again later and has been monitoring the wait times through a neighborhood Facebook group. The news was not encouraging.

“It felt like a type of disenfranchisement, even though there wasn’t any violation of voting rights,” Taylor said. “The wait has been all day three hours or more, which is ridiculous.”

Across the country, Americans like Taylor have had their enthusiasm to vote tested by problems at polling places. There have been long lines owing to surging turnout, a shortage of voting machines, a shortage of ballots or computer malfunctions. Some voters said they stuck it out for as long as five hours.

But not everyone has five hours. An estimated 500,000 eligible voters didn’t cast a ballot in 2012 because of polling place problems such as long lines.

In recent years, voter turnout has been around 40% in midterms and 60% in presidential elections. Voter turnout in 2016 was slightly higher at 61.4%. But the 2018 midterms exceeded expectations with a record-high 53.4% turnout. The U.S. Census Bureau reported increases in every age, racial, and ethnic group, driven mainly by higher Democratic participation in the Blue Wave election. Other estimates are lower — like this 50.3% calculation from Nonprofit Vote, which is still a big jump. If 2020 is the referendum on Trump that’s expected, that 2016 figure of 61.4% could disappear in a downpour.

“Storm of a century” may seem like hyperbole, but voter turnout could likely break records across the country. (Just to compare, previous highs in voter turnout were 73.2% in the 1900 election and 65.4% in 1908.) Other predictions on 2020 voter turnout are just as high:

These predictions are being made by both Republicans and Democrats as well as election journalists and prognosticators. A story in The Atlantic teases readers with the headline Brace for a Voter-Turnout Tsunami.

In a recent paper, the Democratic voter-targeting firm Catalist projected that about 156 million people could vote in 2020, an enormous increase from the 139 million who cast ballots in 2016. Likewise, Public Opinion Strategies, a leading Republican polling firm, recently forecast that the 2020 contest could produce a massive turnout that is also unprecedentedly diverse.

“I think we are heading for a record presidential turnout at least in the modern era, and by that I mean since the franchise went to 18-year-olds,” in 1972, says Glen Bolger, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies. “And I mean not only in total numbers [but also] in terms of the percentage of eligible voters [who turn out]. The emotion behind politics … is sky-high, and I don’t think it’s just on one side. I think it’s on both sides.”

Who will these voters be? The Atlantic story listed some likely voter growth, quoting Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who wrote the above tweet. He specializes in voting behavior and also runs the United States Election Project.

One of the key questions for 2020 is whether Democrats will benefit as much from the likely expansion of the electorate. With Trump on the ballot directly, Republicans hope that 2020 will produce a surge not only in the younger and nonwhite voters who increased their participation in 2018, but also the non-college-educated whites at the foundation of the president’s support, who lagged last year.

The nature of the population eligible to vote is evolving in a way that should indeed help Democrats. McDonald estimates that the number of eligible voters increases by about 5 million each year, or about 20 million from one presidential election to the next. That increase predominantly flows from two sources: young people who turn 18 and immigrants who become citizens. Since people of color are now approaching a majority of the under-18 population — and also constitute most immigrants — McDonald and other experts believe it’s likely that minorities represent a majority of the people who have become eligible to vote since 2016.

Projections from Pew Research also show a more varied electorate than ever before.

In raw numbers, a projected 32 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote in 2020, compared with 30 million blacks. The population of Asians eligible to vote will reach an estimated 11 million in 2020, which is more than double the 5 million who were eligible to vote in 2000, accounting for 5% of next year’s electorate.

Taken together, this strong growth among minority populations means that a third of eligible voters will be nonwhite in 2020, up from about a quarter in 2000. This increase is at least partially linked to immigration and naturalization patterns: One-in-ten eligible voters in the 2020 election will have been born outside the U.S., the highest share since at least 1970.

Those projections match the makeup of people who voted in the 2018 midterm elections. Here’s how voter turnout increased, in different demographic groups, from the 2014 to the 2018 midterms, according to Census Bureau data:

  • Among 18- to 29-year-olds, voter turnout went up 79%, from 20% in 2014 to 36% in 2018. It was the largest percentage point increase for any age group.
  • Voter turnout increased among non-Hispanic Asians by 13 percentage points, a 49% increase.
  • Turnout increased among Latinx voters by 13 percentage points, a 50% increase.
  • Non-Hispanic black voter turnout increased by 11 percentage points.
  • Voter turnout among those in nonmetropolitan areas (up 8 percentage points) was lower than for those living in metropolitan areas (up 12 points). In other words, residents in large cities and suburbs (who tend to vote for more Democrats) voted at a greater rate than those living in smaller cities and rural areas (who tend to vote for more Republicans).
  • 55% percent of eligible women voted compared with 52% percent of men.

A higher number of those who will vote this year will be younger than their counterparts in past presidential election years. Nearly 40% of the electorate in 2020 will be millennial or Generation Z voters. If their votes in 2018 are any indication, they will favor Democratic candidates in November: Among voters who said this was their first midterm, 62% favored the Democrat and just 36% supported the Republican.

No one knows for certain how many people will show up to vote in primaries or in the general election this fall. Despite widespread predictions of historic turnout, there’s little evidence—so far—of states making changes to handle a deluge of voters. But election officials do seem aware of looming issues, as many told The Hill.

In interviews, secretaries of state said they paid close attention to elections in Kentucky, Louisiana and Virginia this year, all states where more voters than ever showed up for what are usually sleepy off-year contests. Several said they had seen a sharp increase in turnout in their own backyards, even in nonpartisan school board elections.

Those results, coupled with higher-than-expected turnout in the 2018 midterms and polls that show voters are extremely enthusiastic about next year’s presidential election, are stark warnings to elections administrators who are already making preparations for what could be record-breaking turnout.

“We know there’s a fire that’s been lit out there, and we definitely saw [it] in Louisiana and Kentucky, some of the trends there,” said Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (R), who is also president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. “We’re going to see an increase again from previous years, and we know we’d better be ready.”

One place to look is in Iowa, where Democratic officials, bracing for the first-in-the-nation voters, are likely to have their hands full. Democratic officials running the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses know they could see a massive turnout and have been scrambling to get ready for over a year, lining up larger facilities and investing in new technology to speed up voter check-in and avoid vote-counting problems. As one state central committeewoman put it, “We have to prepare like it’s Armageddon.”

The Democratic National Committee nixed Iowa Democrats’ plans for virtual caucuses, disallowing voters to caucus by phone, so the schools, churches, community centers, and other gathering places that comprise the 1,678 precincts could be bursting at the seams to contain all of the caucus-goers. There also will be more than 90 satellite precincts, 28 of which are outside the state for Iowans who live out of state or overseas. The satellite precincts also can accommodate people who work nights and voters with disabilities.

A few other states holding early primaries and caucuses foresee problems, even if solutions are elusive. With the growing popularity of absentee voting, Michigan and South Carolina have introduced bills to allow officials to open absentee ballot envelopes (but not the ballots themselves) before Election Day to speed up the counting process. Nevada Democrats have instituted early voting at 80 locations throughout the state in hopes of boosting caucus turnout and avoiding problems on Feb. 22. How early states fare could dictate courses of action for officials in other states.

On the other end of the spectrum, a new voting law in New Hampshire, passed by a Republican House and signed by a Republican governor, requires out-of-state college students to pay licensing and car registration fees before voting. The move, supposedly to fight voter fraud, has created a bureaucratic boondoggle and left college students confused about whether they can vote or not.

Even if voters face delays and other problems, people will show up to vote this year. So grab your friends, your family members, your neighbors, your co-workers, and anyone else you can find, and make sure they are registered to vote. You can find each state’s deadlines for people to register to vote in primary elections here. Some dates have passed already, and deadlines are different for online, mail, and in-person registration, while some states allow voters to register on the actual date of the election.

After losing a battle in 1757, French King Louis XV famously said, “Après moi, le déluge,” implying that the coming difficulties in France after his death wouldn’t be his concern. Let’s hope that today’s state election officials are better prepared for this inevitable voter deluge.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Jan. 31, 2020.

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