States With The Highest (And Lowest) Voter Turnout

10/28/2016 03:56 pm ET

In this year’s presidential primaries, more than 57.6 million Americans went to the polls, slightly less than the 2008 all-time record. It remains to be seen if high primary turnout will translate to high general election turnout when Americans vote in less than a month.

In the 2012 presidential election, just 57.5% of eligible U.S. residents went to the polls. In a number of developed nations voter turnout rates exceed 70%.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed average voter turnout rates over the last four presidential election cycles in every U.S. state. Voter participation ranged from approximately three-quarters of eligible Minnesota residents, the highest nationwide, to half of eligible voters in Hawaii, the lowest voter turnout in the country.

One of the main predictors of voter turnout is whether the election is closely contested. When a candidate appears poised to run away with an election, turnout tends to be much lower. When polls appear to be heavily favoring one candidate, voters may feel they cannot make much of a difference. This election, however, is much more even. While recent general population polls show Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton gaining a slight lead on Republican candidate Donald Trump, the candidates were effectively neck and neck as recently as last month.

On the other hand, turnout may be lower in this election because of the candidates. One recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that about 40% of eligible voters said they had difficulty choosing between the two major party candidates because neither was worthy of the presidency.

A number of factors are likely driving differences in voter turnout at the state level. It appears that in states with high-profile primaries, such as New Hampshire and Iowa, voter turnout tends to be higher during presidential elections. Over the last four general elections, both states were in the top five for voter turnout.

The level of education of state residents also appears to be a relatively strong predictor of voter turnout. While there are a number of exceptions, states with higher college attainment rates tend to have greater voter participation. Of the 20 states with the lowest voter turnout, 16 have a bachelor’s attainment rate below the national share of 30.6% of adults.

Other democracies around the world typically hold elections on the weekend or declare election day a national holiday. Presidential elections in the United States, however, are held during the work day. For this reason, individuals living in poverty are far less likely to vote than higher income individuals, at least in part due to lack of flexibility in the workplace. On the state level, however, the share of workers employed hourly did not appear to be the greatest single factor in voter turnout.

To identify the states with the highest and lowest voter turnout rates, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the average percentage in each state of voting-age citizens who cast a ballot in the past four presidential elections, as well as the percentage of votes for the Republican and Democratic nominees in each of these races. All voter turnout data came from the Current Population Survey (CPS), conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau every month. Also from the CPS, we examined the reasons people cited for not voting as well as average weekly wages per state and nationwide. The percentage of adults who have at least a bachelor’s degree and poverty rates came from the U.S Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey (ACS). Unemployment rates came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The proportion of workers employed on an hourly basis also came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These are the states with the highest (and lowest) voter turnout.

States With the Highest Voter Turnout:

10. Louisiana

  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Republican
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Republican
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 23.2%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 54.0%

Individuals who live in poverty are far less likely to vote than more affluent individuals. In Louisiana, nearly one in five residents lives in poverty, the third highest poverty rate in the country. Unlike most other states with relatively high poverty rates, however, more than two-thirds of eligible Louisianans vote in presidential elections, one of the higher voter turnout rates compared to other states.

Louisiana had an exceptionally strong turnout among low-income voters in the 2012 presidential election. Some 71.3% of eligible individuals earning between $13,000 and $26,000 annually voted, more than the 61.8% voter turnout nationwide among all income groups. To compare only 52.6% of Americans earning such low incomes voted in 2012.

9. Mississippi

  • Voter turnout: 67.2%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Republican
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 20.8%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 61.0%

Voter turnout in Mississippi has increased in each presidential election since George W. Bush took office roughly a decade and a half ago. In 2000, only 60.6% of eligible voters in Mississippi cast a ballot, a considerably smaller share than the 74.5% that made it to the polls in November 2012.

As is the case in every other state, voter turnout dips considerably in Mississippi in non-presidential election years. In November 2014, only 42.3% of eligible voters made it to the polls. Of those who did not vote that year, 22.3% said they were too busy, and 13.2% claimed they simply forgot.

8. Massachusetts

  • Voter turnout: 68.1%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Democrat
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 41.5%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 48.7%

Highly educated individuals are among the most likely to vote in U.S. elections. The relatively well-educated Massachusetts population may partially explain the high voter turnout in the state. An estimated 41.2% of adults have at least a bachelor’s degree, well above the national college attainment rate of 30.1%. Massachusetts is also widely considered a Democratic stronghold, supporting the Democratic presidential candidate by a large margin in each of the past four elections.

7. North Dakota

  • Voter turnout: 68.3%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Republican
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 29.1%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 55.1%

In the last four presidential elections, political engagement in North Dakota has been relatively high, averaging 68.3% participation among eligible voters. However, since 2004 when voter turnout peaked at 71.4%, participation has declined in each election cycle in North Dakota. In November 2012, only 63.9% of eligible voters made it to the polls.

A solidly conservative state, North Dakota preferred the Republican candidate in each of the last four presidential elections. Most recently, Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama in North Dakota by nearly 20 percentage points.

6. Oregon

  • Voter turnout: 69.1%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Democrat
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 32.2%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 54.7%

Presidential elections tends to yield a significantly higher voter turnout than midterms. Nationally, voter turnout gets a 16 percentage point bump during presidential elections. In Oregon, a higher share of residents vote during midterm elections than the voter turnout in many states during presidential election years. In the 2006 midterm election, nearly 60% of Oregon’s eligible voters went to the polls, more than eight states' turnouts during the 2004 presidential election. During that election, 74% of Oregon’s electorate went to the polls, more than all but three other states.

5. Iowa

  • Voter turnout: 69.6%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Democrat
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 26.8%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 56.8%

The Iowa caucuses are the first event in the election process for the President of the United States, setting the tone for the election season. The national attention given to the outcomes likely helps stimulate participation among Iowa’s potential voters. During the most recent caucus held February 1, observers reported crowded venues, extremely long lines, and insufficient numbers of ballots, indicating stronger than average participation. Over the past four general elections, an average of nearly 70% of eligible voters cast their ballot. The best turnout was in 2004, when 71.3% of the electorate cast a ballot. In three of the past four elections -- 2000, 2008, and 2012 -- a larger share of voters supported the Democratic presidential candidate than the Republican one.

4. New Hampshire

  • Voter turnout: 69.8%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Democrat
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 35.7%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 54.4%

In the last four presidential elections, an average of 69.8% of eligible voters in New Hampshire cast a ballot. Historically, New Hampshire has been a swing state, and voter turnout is arguably more decisive in the state’s elective outcome than in the rest of the country. In the last four presidential elections, no candidate has won New Hampshire by a margin larger than 10 percentage points.

3. Maine

  • Voter turnout: 70.8%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Democrat
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 30.1%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 55.2%

In both Maine and the nation as a whole, college graduates are more likely to vote. However, despite the fact that Maine’s educational attainment rate is slightly below average, it still boasts one of the highest voter participation rates in the country. Voter turnout in Maine has been among the highest in the nation in the four most recent presidential elections. Political engagement peaked in Maine in 2004, when 73.1% of eligible voters came to the polls. Historically, Maine is a blue state, opting for the Democratic presidential candidate by at least 5 percentage points in each of the last four presidential elections.

2. Wisconsin

  • Voter turnout: 73.0%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Democrat
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 28.4%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 60.3%

For the past quarter of a century, Wisconsin voters favored a Democrat during presidential elections. Wisconsin was one of only a handful of states to prefer Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election over George H.W. Bush. States that lean heavily in favor of one party often have lower turnout as a result of low competition. Wisconsin, however, has one of the best participation records in the country. In each of the last four presidential elections, more than 70% of Wisconsin’s eligible voters went to the polls -- the only state to exceed 70% voter turnout in all four cycles.

1. Minnesota

  • Voter turnout: 74.5%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Democrat
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 34.7%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 55.3%

Nearly three-quarters of eligible Minnesota residents cast a ballot on average over the past four general election cycles, the highest voter turnout rate of any state in the nation. By contrast, 62% of eligible Americans voted in presidential elections over that period. Minnesota is one of 13 states with a caucus system. Not only are delegate votes usually determined by the outcome, but also party meetings frequently attract highly influential party members. The fanfare generated by the caucuses each election cycle may contribute to the state’s high voter turnout.

One potential reason for the state’s high voter turnout is its decision to allow same-day voter registration. This policy, maintained by Minnesota and 14 other states, has been shown to boost turnout by 7% to 14%. Many states adopted this practice only after the 2012 election -- the North Star State has maintained same-day registration since 1974.

States With the Lowest Voter Turnout:

10. Georgia

  • Voter turnout: 59.3%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Republican
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 29.9%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 48.4%

An average of only 59.3% of eligible voters in Georgia turned out to vote in the past four presidential elections, and more than half of voters preferred the Republican presidential candidate every time. Georgia has not always gone to the conservative candidate, however. Bill Clinton beat Bush, the incumbent candidate, in the the Peach State in 1992.

While voter turnout in Georgia is relatively low in presidential elections, as in every other state, an even smaller share of eligible voters turnout for midterm elections. The lowest participation rate in the last 18 years was in the 1998 midterms, when only 38.6% of the electorate made it to the polls.

9. New York

  • Voter turnout: 59.2%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Democrat
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 35.0%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 43.8%

An average of just 59.2% of eligible New York voters have gone to the polls in the past four presidential elections, one of the lower turnout rates in the country. With the Democratic candidate winning New York State in each of the last four elections by a margin of no less than 18.3 percentage points, New York is reliably a blue state.

In late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast and ultimately became the second costliest storm in U.S. history. In the election that followed a week later, a relatively large share of New Yorkers who did not vote cited bad weather as their reason for not voting. The only state to ever report a larger share of potential voters deterred by bad weather in the last four elections was neighboring New Jersey, also in 2012.

8. Arizona

  • Voter turnout: 58.4%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Republican
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 27.7%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 55.0%

With the exception of Clinton in 1996, a majority of Arizona voters have preferred the Republican candidate in every presidential election since 1952. In the last four presidential elections, voters in the state preferred the Republican nominee over the Democratic candidate by at least 6.3 percentage points.

Voter turnout among younger residents has improved in both Arizona and the country overall since 2000. In the Bush Gore election, just 25.6% of eligible 18 to 24 year olds in Arizona went to the polls. In the most recent election, that figure was 43.0%. Nationally, youth voter turnout in presidential elections has increased from 36.1% in 2000 to 41.2% in 2012.

7. Oklahoma

  • Voter turnout: 58.3%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Republican
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 24.6%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 54.8%

Since a majority vote for Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, Oklahoma has had an uninterrupted history of voting for the Republican presidential candidate. In the last four elections, a Republican won the state with at least 60% of the votes.

Educational attainment is one of the strongest predictors of voter participation. Just 24.2% of Oklahoma adults have at least a bachelor’s degree, a smaller share than the 30.1% of adults nationwide. Perhaps as a result, Oklahoma’s voter turnout is only 58.3%, the seventh lowest in the country.

6. Nevada

  • Voter turnout: 57.7%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Democrat
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 23.6%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 59.7%

Nevada has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the United States with just 57.7% of voting-age citizens going to the polls on average over the past four presidential elections. As is the case nationwide, participation in the state is even worse during non-presidential elections. During the 2014 midterm election, just 37.3% of eligible Nevadans voted, one of the lower shares that year and among the lowest of any state during a midterm or presidential election in the past 20 years.

Education often leads to higher political involvement, and those with bachelor’s degrees are significantly more likely to vote than those with less education. Only 23.1% of Nevada’s adult population have graduated from college compared to 30.1% of all U.S. adults.

5. Texas

  • Voter turnout: 55.3%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Republican
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 28.4%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 48.6%

An average of just about 55% of the Texas electorate managed to make it to the polls in the last four presidential contests. Voter turnout was even lower in the Lone Star State in the midterm elections. Participation bottomed out in November 2014, when only 34.6% of the state electorate made it to the polls. That year, 31.7% of those who did not vote in Texas cited a conflicting work or school schedule.

A solidly red state, the Republican presidential nominee has won Texas by at least an 11.8 percentage point margin in each of the last four elections. A Democratic candidate has not won the state since Carter beat Ford in 1976.

4. Tennessee

  • Voter turnout: 54.9%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Republican
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 25.7%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 57.1%

In each of the last four presidential elections, Tennessee has never had more than 55.7% of eligible voters go to the polls. During the 2000 presidential election, just 53.7% of the Tennessee electorate voted compared to a national turnout rate of slightly less than 60%. This is particularly surprising given the fact that former Vice President Gore -- who ran that year opposite eventual winner Bush -- had been a legislator in the state for years. Gore was also a U.S. senator representing the state from 1984 until his assumption of the vice presidency after the 1992 election.

Education often leads to greater political involvement, and those with bachelor’s degrees are significantly more likely to vote than those with less education. Just 25.3% of Tennessee residents 25 and older have graduated from college compared to 30.1% of all U.S. adults, which could partially explain the low voter turnout rate.

3. Arkansas

  • Voter turnout: 54.3%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Republican
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 21.8%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 56.5%

Education is one of the best predictors of voter turnout. In Arkansas, the collegiate attainment rate of 21.4%, which is well below the 30.1% national figure, may partially explain the low voter turnout in the state. Political races in Arkansas are not especially competitive either, as the state has consistently supported the Republican nominee in general elections. In the last four presidential elections, a Republican won the state by an average margin of about 15 percentage points.

Americans tend to vote when they feel their vote will matter, and the strong Republican base in Arkansas may cause residents to feel their votes are less influential. Of the voting-age population who did not vote in the 2012 election, 21.7% said they were too busy with work or school conflicts on voting day.

2. West Virginia

  • Voter turnout: 52.9%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Republican
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 19.6%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 59.1%

With the exception of Hawaii, no state in the country has a lower average voter turnout rate than West Virginia. An average of only 52.9% of the electorate managed to make it to the polls in the four most recent presidential elections. As was the case across the country, voter turnout was even lower in midterm elections. Over the course of the last 18 years, participation bottomed out in the state in the 2014 midterm elections, when only 33.6% of eligible voters in the state made it to the polls. That year, a conflicting work or school schedule was the most commonly cited reason for not voting.

Though a majority of voters in West Virginia preferred the Republican presidential candidate in each of the last four races, before that, the state did not always side with the GOP. In 1988, West Virginia went to Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, and in both 1992 and 1996, West Virginia voters preferred Clinton, also a Democrat.

1. Hawaii

  • Voter turnout: 50.0%
  • 2012 winning candidate's party: Democrat
  • Pct. with bachelor’s degree: 31.4%
  • Pct. workers paid hourly: 54.5%

Americans are less likely to vote when they believe their vote will not make a difference in the final outcome. As a result, the least contested states tend to have lower turnout rates, while the most politically polarized states often have higher voter turnout rates. In Hawaii, where Obama beat Romney by nearly 43 percentage points in the most recent election, voter turnout is the lowest in the country. Hawaii has almost always been a strongly Democratic state.

To improve voter turnout, Hawaii lawmakers have recently passed legislation that will allow residents to register to vote on Election Day. Numerous academic studies have claimed such legislation can increase voter turnout by 7 to 14 percentage points.

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