Lost Voters: Voter Turnout, Suppression and Mobilization in Key 2020 Election Counties

September 23, 2020 | 11:49 am
Marion S. Trikosko
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

Enthusiasm for the November election may be at a record high, which is normally good news for a democracy. Unfortunately, even if there were not a global pandemic to contend with, voters still face barriers across states that have refused to modernize their election rules.

To better assess the integrity of the election as it unfolds and understand the impact of these rules on voter participation, I’m tracking ballot activity in populous counties in pivotal states, along with other select counties for comparison.We can see which counties are better prepared, where we might anticipate problems, and offer some advice about what people can do to protect their vote. Even at this late stage, there are ways that states, organizations, voters, and anyone committed to free and fair elections can improve the integrity of our election.

With just two months left before final ballots are cast, we are getting a picture of what the electoral ecosystem looks like in these key counties. Thanks to Secretaries of State that collect and update data regularly, local election officials committed to transparency, and Michael McDonald’s 2020 General Election Early Voting Statistics, UCS is providing an ongoing analysis of voter participation and election result reporting. Data include counties in the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. In this initial review, I focus on comparisons to 2016 election results and the structural inequalities that limit voter participation and bias representation.

A few highlights:

  • Some swing states already have considerable experience with vote-by-mail, but others have little. Some, but not all counties are experiencing a surge in vote-by-mail requests.
  • Due to the combination of election rules and expected vote-by-mail surge, select counties in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan will be especially important to watch after Election Day, as backlogs of mail ballots are processed.
  • We show how inequalities in voter participation in these key counties are the result of passive voter suppression, a combination of socioeconomic and legal inequalities that depress turnout.
  • While it may be too late to overcome legal barriers as voting gets underway, voter mobilization techniques targeted at under-represented communities, and strategies to combat active voter suppression and disinformation, can still have a dramatic impact ensuring fair and full participation in the November election.

Voter turnout and changes in vote-by-mail 2016-2020

One of the major changes that we see in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a surge in vote-by-mail requests and an increase in expected vote-by-mail ballots in most of these counties. Major differences between states often reflect differences in election law. The greatest surge in expected vote-by-mail is seen in California counties, as the state moved to universal vote-by-mail, and is sending every active eligible voter a ballot starting on October 5. California had also previously enacted automatic voter registration, which means that in counties like Los Angeles, nearly 90% of the citizen voting age population will be receiving a ballot.

Because Colorado already had universal vote-by-mail in 2016, the percent of ballots mailed out then was already high relative to other states, and is associated with relatively high voter turnout for Colorado counties in 2016. Similarly, the high percentage of Arizona’s 2016 and 2020 ballots sent are about equal as a result of the state’s prior experience with vote-by-mail, though Arizona does not provide automatic voter registration.

Figure 1. Comparison of 2020 Ballot Requests and Voter Registration (for Universal Vote-by-Mail States) to 2016 Voter Turnout and Ballot Requests. Sources: American Community Survey; 2016 Election Administration and Voting Survey; County Election Officials, Secretary of State Offices, and Election Project 2020 General Election Early Vote Statistics

 Two other important patterns emerge from this comparison. First, Florida and Ohio counties both mailed about a quarter of their voters’ ballots in 2016, and requests for ballots have not changed dramatically overall. Palm Beach is experiencing a substantial increase (from 192,000 to over 330,000) in requests, but most of these counties are close to their 2016 percentages. This is relevant for two reasons. With prior experience processing large numbers of mail ballots, we should see fewer problems with processing compared to counties with less experience. Further, because counties in Florida can start processing ballots 22 days before Election Day, when polls close, they will have most of their ballots counted on election night.

Second, a number of counties in competitive states with 2016 vote-by-mail rates below 10% are experiencing a big surge in mail ballot requests. The select counties in Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin are seeing at least double the percentage of voters requesting early ballots, and in places like Allegheny County, PA, requests are more than 10 times what were sent in 2016. Part of the difference is explained by the fact that Pennsylvania voters have been able to apply for mail ballots online without an excuse since 2019. Indeed, all but six states are allowing no-excuse vote-by-mail for the 2020 election, and litigation is pending to expand ballot access in several states.

While the surge in requests reflects some of the enthusiasm for voting, as well as concern about the safety of voting in-person during a pandemic, it also points to potential problems in ballot processing. In particular, counties in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (as well as Michigan) will not begin counting ballots until Election Day. In counties like Philadelphia (PA) and Dane (WI) that means hundreds of thousands of ballots needing to be counted, and likely delay in the official reporting of results. These are counties to watch closely on Election Night.

Passive and active voter suppression

 To anticipate patterns of voter participation in our select counties, we need to account for broader institutional and sociological forces at work. Strict voter registration deadlines, restrictions on voting options like vote-by-mail and early voting, and other restrictions to ballot access have a suppressive effect on voting, as UCS and others have shown. Moreover, the burden of these restrictive election laws falls most heavily on those who lack the resources to overcome barriers to voting.

Resource-based models of political participation demonstrate that the likelihood of voting depends not only on politically-relevant resources that one possesses (time, money, skills), but also the degree to which people are embedded in resource-rich social networks that facilitate recruitment into political action. Economic displacement, poverty, and legal barriers to voting exert a cumulative suppressive effect on voter participation through multiple causal mechanisms: a lack of personal resources to dedicate to overcoming institutional barriers to political activity, and a scarcity of organizational opportunities to engage with or be recruited into politics by others.

Evidence of these influences are observable in the select counties. While the absence of individual-level data prohibits exploration of distinct causal mechanisms, we have state-level election law measures of the ease of voting, along with a county-level Community Distress Index compiled by the Economic Innovation Group. Both forms of structural inequality appear to reduce voter turnout in the 2016 election data.

Figure 2. 2016 County-Level Voter Turnout (Percentage of Citizen Voting Age Population) in Key 2020 Counties, by State, and Economic Innovation Group’s Community Distress Index. Sources: https://www.census.gov/data/datasets/2016/dec/rdo/2012-2016-CVAP.html; https://www.eac.gov/research-and-data/2016-election-administration-voting-survey https://eig.org/dci

The highest levels of county-level turnout in all states are concentrated where community distress is lowest, in affluent counties like San Luis Obispo, California and Dane, Wisconsin, where Madison is the largest city. We also observe higher levels of turnout in Colorado counties, where there are few restrictions on voting, and lower levels of turnout in Texas counties, where there are more barriers. Ohio represents an example of how election laws can shape electoral competition: the state was a battleground for presidential election through the late 20th and early 21st centuries, but extreme partisan gerrymandering and restrictive election laws, including purging of voters from registration lists, have reduced the capacity for all voters to be heard.

While it may be too late for legislatures to reform the basic election rules, election infrastructure, including polling place locations, assignment of polling workers, and voter mobilization strategies are still very much under development, and are at least partially responsible for the observed impact of community distress on voter turnout. This occurs for several reasons.

First, research has shown disparities in the placement and quality of election resources, including polling places, voting machines, and well-trained polling workers in more urban, densely-populated neighborhoods and communities of color. Election resources for potential voters in these communities often simply do not meet the needs of residents.

Second, both major political parties effectively disenfranchise distressed communities by ignoring them. Expensive, data-driven targeting strategies typically focus on “high-propensity” voters, that is, individuals for whom there is an established voting history and data on registration status, political orientation, and often ideological and consumer habits. Not surprisingly, high-propensity voters tend to live together in communities which also have well-equipped voting infrastructure, and those communities are the targets of the best-funded campaign mobilization activities.

Third, mobilization activities themselves can exacerbate inequalities in turnout. Ryan Enos, Anthony Fowler and Lynn Vavreck have tested several field experiments and found that most are more successful at recruiting high-propensity voters over low-propensity voters. Whether through face-to-face canvassing, phone banking, or direct mail, high-propensity voters are more likely to respond to the cues provided by campaigns. The inequalities that result from such selective targeting and response has led election scholars Bertrall Ross II and Douglas Spencer to conclude that “the most significant voter suppression tactics of the twenty-first century are therefore not what legislatures are doing, but what campaigns are not doing.”

Of course, there are also active, illegal forms of voter suppression that threaten the integrity of the election this year. Examples of active voter suppression already documented include: racist robocalls intended to deter Black and Brown voters from voting by mail, claims that ballots are being sent to unregistered voters, that multiple ballots are being sent to voters or that the Postal Service is destroying, collecting, or otherwise manipulating ballots. While active voter suppression is a direct threat to the integrity of the election, passive voter suppression is all the more insidious in that it operates under the protection of, and often as, the law.

Across the small set of counties analyzed here, both state election laws and community distress have independent, substantial suppressive effects on voter turnout. By modeling turnout as a function of community distress, restrictiveness of state election law and other state-level fixed effects, it is possible to statistically “remove” the impact of the economic conditions from the equation.

Subtracting estimated turnout without the economic effects, from actual turnout in 2016, suggests that voter participation without passive suppression could result in a more diverse electorate, or more specifically, an electorate that better reflects the racial composition of the citizen voting age population.


Figure 3. Regression estimate of 2016 voter turnout, removing impact of Community Distress Index, which is associated with a 0.17 percent reduction in turnout for every one-point increase in distress. Sources: https://www.census.gov/data/datasets/2016/dec/rdo/2012-2016-CVAP.html; https://www.eac.gov/research-and-data/2016-election-administration-voting-survey; https://eig.org/dci

Overcoming voter suppression

 The turnout estimates indicate that while economically distressed, majority-white communities like Fayette County, Pennsylvania would experience a big increase in turnout, much larger and more racially diverse counties like Los Angeles and Philadelphia would also see higher turnout. Given the impact of socioeconomic resources and the importance of mobilization strategies on turnout, activities taken by community organizers and campaigns during the remainder of the election could certainly influence voter participation and the outcome of the 2020 election.

Organizers and scholars have identified mobilizing activities that, targeted to the right communities, can empower traditionally under-represented voters. For example, Lisa Garcia-Bedolla and Melissa Michelson have shown that both door-to-door and live phone actions, if repeated, have measurable positive effects on turnout. Non-profits conducting client organizing shows particular effectiveness, especially among low-propensity voters. Participation in traditionally over-looked communities increases when voters see that community organizers are attentive to their interests.

UCS partner the Battle for Democracy Fund embodies community-oriented voter empowerment. They support local non-partisan organizations by developing leadership and activism within community groups, schools, churches, synagogues, mosques and more. By activating voters at each step of the process in key states like Ohio, BDF combats voter suppression and works to enfranchise the thousands of voters in cities across the Great Lakes region who are routinely kept out of the political process.

State and local election officials also have crucial roles to play in supporting effective voter participation. They are, after all, the ones who hold the information that organizations need to recruit voters. County election officials can provide public information to expand the universe of potential voters, data that can reduce socioeconomic inequalities in voting, and help ensure free, fair, and full participation. By watching these counties, listening to local voices, and reporting on the election as it unfolds, we can all help ensure the integrity of the election.

UCS and our partners have developed a disinformation and intimidation worksheet to help voters overcome the threat of active voter suppression and disinformation tactics. As we discuss in greater detail in this worksheet, voters can take action to inoculate themselves from disinformation: avoiding amplification on social media, reporting and flagging falsehoods, and naming bad actors when they are identified. Similarly, all actors should be on the alert for signs of active voter intimidation or physical threats to safety as votes start being cast. Any problems or questions about election practices in your community can be reported to the Election Protection Hotline: 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) or visit 866ourvote.org.

Finally, every voter should have a plan! For example, this six-step plan can be applied to the specific requirements in whatever state you live in. Wherever you live, find a way to make your vote, and the votes of your community, count.