As Republicans make a sweeping voter suppression push nationwide, they insist it won’t have any real impact on voters’ ability to cast their ballots. But a look at how voter turnout shifted in 2020 shows a strong link between states making it easier to vote and voters actually turning out.
In 2020, the states that showed the biggest jumps in voter turnout were almost uniformly states that also made it dramatically easier to vote, often by allowing everyone to vote by mail. And the states that saw the lowest turnout increases were all ones where it’s hard to vote—and where lawmakers kept onerous rules in place—like bans on mail voting—in spite of the pandemic.
“You see this very stark correlation where states with higher usage of mail ballots had higher turnouts in the 2020 election,” said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor and head of the United States Election Project. “If you look at the change in turnout from 2016, you see a very strong correlation that the higher the change, the more permissive a state’s laws were in terms of allowing mail ballots.”
Correlation isn’t causation, and the 2020 election was unique because of the coronavirus.
But these data show an undeniable correlation between mail voting laws and turnout in the last election. And that goes a way in explaining why Republicans seem so eager to make it harder to vote in a number of states—even as they insist it has nothing to do with keeping Democrats from casting ballots.
Every state in the U.S. saw an increase in voting turnout from 2016 to 2020, according to data McDonald crunched that looks at turnout as a percent of the total voter-eligible population—the total presidential vote divided by the number of people legally eligible to vote in each state. Voters’ interest was simply a lot higher this past election, and the massive expansion of mail balloting may have contributed to higher turnout as well.
But there were significant differences in both the turnout rate by state and how much higher states’ turnout was from earlier elections.
Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas were the only five states in the country that didn’t allow every registered voter to vote by mail. All five of them sat near the bottom of the country in terms of both raw turnout and increased turnout from 2016 to 2020.
The group made up half of the 10 states with the lowest turnout in 2020: Tennessee was fifth worst nationally, Mississippi was sixth, Texas was seventh, Indiana was eighth, and Louisiana was 10th. Turnout in these states ranged from 59.6 percent in Tennessee to 61.4 percent in Louisiana — all below the 66.1 percent national average and far behind the national leader, Minnesota, which had 79.6 percent turnout in the presidential election.
These states were also mostly at the bottom in terms of how many more voters turned out from 2016 to 2020.
Five states that did not let everyone vote by mail in 2020 were in the bottom 10 in turnout:
Nationally, turnout was up by 6.9 percentage points, a major jump that made 2020 the highest-turnout election in recent decades. But Louisiana had the smallest increase in turnout of any state in the country, at 1.4 percentage points. Indiana was 9th, at a 4.3 percentage point turnout increase, and Mississippi was 13th with a 4.5 percentage point increase.
Turnout in Tennessee and Texas increased more than the national average, rising 8.5 percentage points in Tennessee and 8.8 percentage points in Texas. But Tennessee had nowhere to go but up, as its 2016 turnout was the third-worst in the nation, and after court fights the state made clear anyone who had a preexisting health condition or lived with anyone who had one could vote by mail, and that it wouldn’t go after anyone who opted to cast a mail ballot.
Texas’ rise isn’t a shock either, given other circumstances. While the Lone Star State kept in place restrictions on mail voting, it did add an extra week of early in-person voting. Mixed messages from court decisions likely encouraged more people to vote by mail even if it wasn’t totally clear they were legally allowed to. And for the first time in a generation, Texas was seen as a competitive state in the presidential election, which undoubtedly spurred turnout.
Conversely, seven of the eight states that saw the biggest spike in election turnout all either made it much easier to vote by mail in 2020 or already had universal mail voting on the books and sent everyone in the state a ballot without them having to request it.
Hawaii’s turnout had been the lowest in the nation in 2016, at 42.3 percent. But after it instituted mail voting, turnout jumped a stunning 14.7 percentage points to 57 percent—still near the bottom in turnout, but a massive improvement.
Other states with double-digit jumps in turnout include Utah, which switched to a universal mail voting systems in 2020; California, which sent mail ballots to every registered voter in the state for the first time; Montana, which automatically sent ballots to almost all voters for the first time; and Washington, which has had universal mail voting on the books for years. New Jersey and Vermont also sent mail ballots to all active registered voters for the first time, and saw turnout increases just shy of 10 percentage points.
The only state besides Washington with a double-digit jump in voter turnout that didn’t make major changes was Arizona, which has a robust mail voting system and also went from being a largely uncontested state to a key battleground in both the presidential and Senate map that saw Herculean efforts to drive up voter turnout.
Republicans are pushing for restrictive voting-rule changes in nearly every state in the country. And they’ve already had some success.
In Iowa, Republicans rammed through a new law that eliminated a week of early voting, forced polling places to close at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m., and changed the rules so that mail ballots that were sent before Election Day but arrived after no longer counted.
Georgia Republicans backed off their most egregious voter suppression efforts, deciding not to eliminate universal mail voting and curtail early in-person like they’d originally proposed. But on Thursday night they rushed through a bill that made some dramatic changes to voting laws, including new photo ID requirements for mail voters and a ban on giving food or water to people waiting in line to vote, changes that civil rights activists say are clearly aimed at voters of color.
The irony is while Republicans are clearly aiming to make it harder to vote in order to benefit politically, sky-high turnout in states that expanded mail voting may have helped them win down-ballot races in 2020. They won a number of surprising House seats in California, swept Montana’s hotly contested statewide races, and defeated a Democratic incumbent in Utah, all states that saw double-digit turnout. There’s some evidence in political science research that mail voting has helped Republicans in past elections too.
Some Republican-designed bills are more surgically targeting Democratic voters rather than making it harder to vote for everyone, however: Long voting lines tend to occur much more often in Black and Hispanic communities, so the Georgia GOP’s new ban on giving people in line food and drinks, for example seems explicitly aimed at those voters.
McDonald said there’s more evidence that mail voting helps boost turnout in traditionally low-turnout non-presidential elections—and that there’s evidence it more often helps the GOP, though the partisan polarization that Trump created around mail voting may undercut this going forward.
“If you look at the all mail-ballot elections… it actually tends to benefit Republicans. So in some cases, the Democrats may be working in a way that may actually hurt them politically,” he said. “I don't really know how this is all gonna play out in the future and I don't think anyone does because the way in which we voted changed a lot in 2020.”
McDonald, who calculated the 2016 and 2020 turnout figures, cautioned that the 2020 election was unique because of how the coronavirus threatened voters’ safety, the dramatic changes many states made to make it easier to vote by mail to compensate, and the harsh partisan attacks that President Trump leveled at mail voting. Correlation isn’t causation, and other factors undoubtedly played a role in some states’ spikes in turnout, especially other state laws governing election rules and how much time and money campaigns put into turning out voters in those states.
There are plenty of other factors that impact voting turnouts. Mail ballot rules are just a sliver of the overall voting picture—whether states have early in-person voting periods, whether they allow Sunday voting (a day Black churches use to organize Souls to the Polls events), whether they have automatic voter registration when people get driver’s licenses or have other interactions with the government, whether states proactively send out ballots or voters have to apply, and what voter identification requirements voters face all play a big role.
But these data showed a clear pattern.
“It’s a little early to say all these reforms necessarily caused higher turnout, but the correlation is real,” said the Brennan Center for Justice’s Kevin Morris. “The places that treated their voters well are the places that had high turnout.”