Why you should care
Because a huge swath of the country is not hitting its voting potential.
The high-stakes drama of the 2020 presidential election is unfolding. Nearly two dozen Democratic candidates have lined up for the chance to challenge Donald Trump, who has sparked an awakening of disaffected conservative voters while inspiring a forceful backlash from liberal opponents. But no matter which candidate emerges from the left, the general election will be determined by how many voters turn up to vote and where.
As countless postmortems of the 2016 election bore out, Trump benefited from his ability to get surprising support in places like Michigan and Pennsylvania while Hillary Clinton struggled to turn out the Obama coalition of African American, Latino and White liberal voters in key swing states. With that in mind, OZY is launching a new series centered around a single question: Who Cares? Pushing deeper than mere campaign coverage, we are traveling to states beyond just the early primary contests, looking at not only the news of the day but also at the steps different parts of the country are taking to shape the future of American democracy.
Colorado, for instance, emerged as the epicenter of voter engagement in the 2016 elections thanks to innovations like drive-through ballot boxes and Walmart election centers. But elections come down to who doesn’t show up too. And an OZY exclusive data analysis of turnout across America reveals strikingly low turnout across a large swath of Appalachia and extending westward to the Plains states. Of the 330 counties nationally that have consistently seen less than 40 percent turnout in midterm elections and less than 60 percent in presidential years over the past four national election cycles, 204 fall in just six states. This region, which we are calling the Apathy Belt, runs from West Virginia and Kentucky to Arkansas and Oklahoma, and includes parts of Texas and New Mexico.
Click here to explore an interactive map of voter turnout across the country.
Many of these places have lower median incomes and educational attainment levels, factors that have been shown statistically to coincide with lower turnout as well. But there may be other things at play here. States like Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia have such a history of being “dominated by corruption and election manipulation that it’s almost comical when you look back at it,” says Janine Parry, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Local party bosses “lost” certain precinct boxes, and stuffed the ballot boxes in other precincts. A missing ballot box was found in an attic in Moulton, Arkansas, in 1995. Voter fraud was so unabashedly rampant that, when a deputy sheriff in Conway County decided to publish an autobiography, he chose for its title How I Stole Elections.
If I don’t think my vote is going to be counted accurately, why would I be bothered to vote?
Wayne Williams, former Republican secretary of state of Colorado
A tradition of shady elections wears on voters, particularly with heightened reports of Russian meddling in recent years. “In an era in which there are significant attacks on the integrity of voter systems, it matters,” says Wayne Williams, the former Republican secretary of state who helped Colorado become a voter turnout leader in 2018. “If I don’t think my vote is going to be counted accurately, why would I be bothered to vote?”
These are not states that you typically hear about as harbingers of presidential elections, mostly because they have often been noncompetitive for so long — and so solidly red or blue that national parties have dedicated little resources or attention to them.
Yet recent elections have shown those neat presumptions to be flawed. Since 2010, Arkansas and West Virginia have made “the biggest, fastest flips of any state ever,” Parry says. They have gone from “almost total Democratic monopolies to almost total Republican monopolies in just three election cycles: 2010, 2012 and 2014,” according to her analysis of all 50 states over the past eight decades.
As Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist John Brummett wrote in October: “Most of you vote for the ‘R’ these days in the automatic and overwhelming way your parents or grandparents voted ‘D.’” That’s why neither party can take any of these states for granted anymore. Apathy is increasingly not an option.
Some other revelations from the data:
- The biggest dropoff from 2012 to 2016 in raw votes came in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin — more than 52,000 fewer people voted there in 2016 than in 2012. (Wisconsin went to Donald Trump by fewer than 23,000 votes.) That’s followed by Cuyahoga County in (Cleveland) Ohio, with a drop-off of more than 40,000; and Wayne County in (Detroit) Michigan, with a roughly 38,000-vote drop (Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes).
- Why is Arizona firmly on the 2020 battleground map? Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, saw a stunning 579,000-vote leap from 2014 to 2018. With just 60 percent turnout in 2016, plus a fast-growing population, there’s a lot of untapped urban and suburban voters in a state Trump won by fewer than 100,000 votes.
- A key county to watch for pro-Trump enthusiasm: Lee County, Florida. Its voter turnout jumped 8 percent from 2012 to 2016 — a 60,000-vote increase that netted 37,000 more votes for Trump than Mitt Romney.
- By far the country’s most common county name is Washington County, with 31 states having counties named after the first president. Only four of them (in Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Oregon) had more than 60 percent voter turnout in the 2018 midterms.
- Harding County, New Mexico, with an estimated population of 498 people, led the nation in 2018 with 97 percent voter turnout. That was actually a bad year by the rural county’s standards — in 2012 and 2014 it hit 100 percent voter turnout.
- Chattahoochee County, a rural community near Fort Benning military base and Columbus, Georgia, has been the lowest voting county in each of the last four national election cycles (18 percent in 2012; 8 percent in 2014; 17 percent in 2016; 13 percent in 2018).