Trump and polarization drove record turnout. So did mail voting, which should be universal.
All Americans should be able to vote by mail, simply and conveniently. States should enshrine this in law to keep turnout up and election costs down.
Let’s take a moment to celebrate the voters and election officials who pulled off a triumph of civic participation in modern American politics.
About 160 million people voted in the 2020 general election. This is the most number of people who have voted in any American election. There is uncertainty in the final turnout number because there are still ballots left to be counted, but it is clear that the United States experienced record levels of voter engagement.
Two-thirds of those eligible to vote participated, which is the highest turnout rate since 1900. To underscore the historic nature of the election, consider that no living person voted in that election.
Why did this happen? One reason is that in these highly polarized times, people believe elections matter. The Gallup polling organization reported a record level of people saying that the election matters more than in previous years. An old curse is “may you live in interesting times.” The coronavirus pandemic, social justice, the economy, immigration, health care, the environment. These are among the many major issues facing the country.
Trump is a turnout machine
And then, of course, there is President Donald Trump himself. Love him or hate him, he inflames passion like no other politician, and people wanted to have a say in whether he should continue to be president.
How did this happen? Election officials deserve credit for managing unprecedented turnout in the midst of a pandemic. When the pandemic is over, give one a hug. The American people did their part, too. Aided by most states that relaxed their mail balloting laws, voters cast a record number of 65 million mail ballots.
There were concerns that election officials would be overwhelmed by a deluge of ballots delivered close to Election Day (and that the U.S. Postal Service would fail to deliver these ballots). Voters assisted election officials and themselves by returning their mail ballots earlier, allowing election officials to better manage the flow of ballots through their offices.
Voters wanted to participate. Where in-person early voting options were available, people showed up to vote. In some cases, they determinedly stood in lines for up to 11 hours. This was the biggest blemish on the election, as officials were unprepared for so many in-person early voters. Despite this, in-person early voting shattered records, too, running about twice the 2016 levels.
In sum, more than 100 million people cast their ballots by mail or early in-person, over 60% of all votes cast. Yet more records.
What does this mean for future elections?
Several states held all-mail ballot elections on an emergency basis in 2020 (with some in-person voting options for those who need or want to vote this way). All-mail elections are cheaper to run than traditional polling place elections because they don’t require as many polling places, expensive voting machines or poll workers. Voters in the Western states that have held all-mail elections for a while like this method of voting, too. Now that more people have been exposed to mail balloting, we are likely to see it used widely in the future.
If we are to expand mail balloting, but stop short of all-mail ballot elections, states that temporarily expanded mail balloting for the pandemic emergency need to revisit antiquated laws designed when there were fewer mail voters. States that have been conducting mail ballot elections for a while provide some best practices.
Make mail voting easy everywhere
First, enable people to vote by mail. If a state does not already permit any registered voter to request a mail ballot, enshrine this in law. I’d further allow voters to permanently receive a mail ballot, instead of repeatedly being required to request them.
Second, make it easier for election officials to manage mail ballots by allowing them more time before Election Day to process ballots that arrive at their offices. This will increase the speed of election result reporting, and allow election officials more time to contact voters who have problems with their ballots.
Third, make the return of ballots more convenient. Make more drop boxes available for voters to return their ballots. This will help people avoid being disenfranchised by post office delays.
Lastly, as a cost-saving measure, do away with an inner envelope, if a state requires it. Not only are inner envelopes unnecessary, they confuse people, leading to more rejected “naked” ballots when voters forget to put their ballot inside an envelope, and inside another envelope.
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These recommendations are not without costs, and many state and local governments underfund elections in favor of critical government infrastructure that citizens need on a daily basis. But elections are critical, too. We cannot rely on philanthropic donations, as many wealthy people made during this election. Federal, state and local resources are welcome to make these changes. And really, if you’re serious about costs, adopt all-mail ballot elections. They are the cheapest way to run elections.
Are we in for an extended period of higher turnout? Among our founding principles is that the government is responsive to the will of the citizens, as expressed through elections. High turnout is a sign of a healthy democracy. In recent elections, the United States was near the higher end of the turnout trading range over the past century even before experiencing this breakout election. It seems likely that we’ll remain there, at least until the major issues driving wedges between Americans are resolved.
Michael P. McDonald, an expert on elections and redistricting, is an associate political science professor at the University of Florida and runs the U.S. Elections Project. Follow him on Twitter at @electproject