Election Turnout During a Pandemic

In most political campaigns, the final electoral result is determined not necessarily from transforming undecided individuals into positive votes, but rather ensuring that the candidate’s committed supporters actually cast their ballot. Therefore, accurately projecting and influencing voter turnout becomes critical for every campaign.

Before the COVID-19 virus struck, many analysts and political prognosticators were predicting a record turnout in the 2020 general election, thus exceeding 2016’s all-time high 136.8 million presidential election ballots. Many stated that breaking 150 million voters was possible, with some even believing such was likely. The post-COVID primary vote participation figures now suggest otherwise, however.

There is a big difference in voter turnout before and after the COVID-19 virus attack. Prior to the March 18 societal shutdown, 25 states had held presidential primary or major caucus elections, meaning up to and including the March 17 election date in Arizona, Florida, and Illinois. North Dakota and Wyoming, because of the small attendance figures in their caucuses and reporting system, are not included in this matrix.

By mid-March, former Vice President Joe Biden had broken away from the pack of Democratic candidates, and all of his major opponents had either dropped out of the race or were headed down that path. When voters cast their ballots on March 17, only Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) were advancing to the April 7 primary in Wisconsin.

Through March 17, Democratic primary turnout was up substantially from 2016, and on projected pace to meet the high turnout general election predictions if such a trend continued throughout the remainder of the election year. Republican turnout was down substantially in comparison to 2016, but that is obviously because President Trump had no serious opposition for re-nomination. Therefore, only the Democratic turnout numbers are viable for making statistically relevant calculations and projections.

Through the 25 tested presidential primaries ending March 17, turnout was up 14.8% when compared to the open race four years ago in the 17 states that held primary or major caucus elections in both 2016 and 2020. Since the COVID shutdown, however, Democratic voter participation has fallen. In the 11 post-COVID states that held Democratic primary elections in both 2016 and 2020, turnout dropped 21.2% when comparing the participation figures from the aforementioned election years.

Obviously, the COVID shutdown is a factor in the reduced turnout percentages, but it’s also due to the Democratic nomination contest being effectively over. Additionally, the moving of so many primary dates in response to the COVID precautions has caused scheduling confusion. This is yet another reason for the reduced turnout in that many people may have not consciously chosen to skip the primary but simply missed the election because of a new, unfamiliar, and relatively unpublicized election date.

The lower vote totals also suggest that the emphasis on mail voting, and in some places making the change universal, has not led to the expected increase in voter participation. 

According to a June 6 Business Insider publication article, states such as Iowa, Michigan, and Montana received positive reviews for how their clerks handled the election logistics, but the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania were tagged with failing grades.

In the latter locales, reports of voters not receiving ballots, getting the wrong ballots for their particular districts, and seeing long lines at the polling stations for those who chose to vote in person, led to chaos and portends poorly for expanding mail voting for the general election and perhaps permanently.

This was particularly true in Pennsylvania where Democratic turnout was down 34% from 2016. There were reports of widespread instances of people not receiving their absentee ballots, and simply not knowing there was an election. The PA statewide primary is traditionally in April and originally scheduled for April 28. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) moved the election to June 2 but did little in the way of driving home the message about when to vote.

Considering Mr. Biden was born and raised in northeast Pennsylvania, seeing his party turnout drop this much leads to further external factors being at work that help explain the downturn.

Since outside factors have greatly affected this election during the most recent weeks, it is clear that the traditional methodology models for projecting voter turnout, and perhaps polling in general, are skewed and perhaps next to useless for the coming November vote.

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