A Rebuttal Regarding Changes in Election Laws and Changes in Turnout

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Putting aside the comparison with Georgia, I want to take issue with James Sherlock’s comparison of turnout in earlier Virginia gubernatorial elections with the turnout after significant recent changes in the Commonwealth’s elections laws. First of all, comparing the 66.5% turnout in the 1989 election, in which Doug Wilder became the first Black person in the nation to be elected governor, to any other election is misleading. That was an historic event; of course there would be massive turnout.

More importantly, however, in this type of analysis, one needs to look at the relative levels of registration. Research has shown that increases in registration, especially some variant of automatic registration such as Motor Voter, do not translate into a comparable rise in turnout. In fact, they may result in a decrease in the turnout rate. If registration is relatively low, as it has been historically in Virginia, it is likely those registered are the most committed and the most likely to vote. (See here and here for more discussion of these findings.)

Comparisons of registered voters, population size, and relevant percentages provide strong evidence that recent changes in election laws helped expand the number of people participating in the 2021 gubernatorial election.

A spreadsheet displaying the data discussed below can be found here. The source of election data is the Department of Elections. Voting-age population estimates are derived from data available from the Cooper Center at the University of Virginia. Estimates of the voting age population for the years prior to 2013 are not readily available. Consequently, the data for the estimated voting-age population for the 2021, 2017, and 2013 elections are based on estimates provided by the Cooper Center. Because the voting-age population in those years constituted approximately 75% of the total population, that percentage was applied to the estimated total population for earlier years to arrive at an estimated voting age population for each of those years.

For the five gubernatorial elections from 1977-1993, turnout of registered voters ranged from 53% to 66.5%, with turnout in all but one of those elections above 60%. However, the percentage of the voting age population that voted in those elections never reached 40%, although by 1993, almost 61% were registered to vote. By contrast, in 2017 more than 88% of the voting-age population was registered and almost half of the voting-age population cast a ballot in that election.

After the 1993 election, the number of registered voters increased rapidly and faster than the increase in the general population, thanks in large part to the implementation of Motor Voter registration. The number of registered voters doubled from 1993 to 2021, while the voting age population increased by a little over one-third. Looking at the entire time period of 1977 to 2021, the comparisons are just as dramatic, with the number of registered voters tripling and the voting-age population increasing by about three-fourths.

With these increases in the number of registered voters, the turnout of the number of voters increased, but the turnout rate fell into the 40% to 50% range, until it jumped to 55% in 2021, despite an increase of more than 8% in the number of registered voters from 2017 to 2021.

Another perspective is to compare the total number of votes in an election to the size of the estimated voting age population. From the 1977 election to the 2017 gubernatorial election, the percentage of the voting age population who voted ranged from 32.1% to 39.6%. The percentage bounced around in that range from year to year. In 2021, the percentage of the total population increased dramatically to 48.9%, almost half.

In summary, 25 years ago, the turnout of registered voters in gubernatorial elections was higher than in more recent years, but a smaller percentage of the voting age population was registered to vote. As registration grew, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the total population, the voter turnout rate decreased to below 50% until the 2021 election when it jumped to 55.3%. It is safe to say that changes in voting laws making it easier to vote accounted for a significant amount of that increase in participation. For example, there were 676,018 more voters in 2021 than in 2017. However, as reported by VPAP, in 2017, there were 195,634 early (absentee) voters, but, almost 1.2 million people voted early in 2021, 861,470 in person.

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16 responses to “A Rebuttal Regarding Changes in Election Laws and Changes in Turnout”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Interesting analysis – and valid and agree when one looks at the bigger picture, it is different than what Sherlock was focusing on.

    Seems odd, that more total registrations don’t actually necessarily lead to higher turnouts.

    Is that true in general for all states?

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      It leads to higher turnouts in absolute terms, but not necessarily in relation to the increase in the number of people registered. Look at the second link I provided. It is an analysis of the effect of adding automatic voter registration in several states.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        right, which is counter-intuitive … and makes
        one wonder how effective voter registration drives actually are.

        My bet is that if people COULD vote – on their phones and the window was 60 days – “turnout” would increase dramatically.

        It could be done quite safely with two-factor authentication/biometrics.. It’s not impossible to defeat two-factor authentication but it’s pretty tough.

      2. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        All fair points, Dick. The turnout math is about both the numerator and the denominator. No question in my mind the early voting has really expanded turnout. But Sherlock is dead on correct that all the whining about the Georgia law was groundless, as a hot election yesterday brought a great turnout (and a rebuke to you know who.)

  2. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

    And will the MSM hound Rob Manfred, commissioner of MLB, for moving the All Star Game from Atlanta?

    Issues motivate people to vote.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      When MLB and Delta did their thing, didn’t Georgia back off the prospective voting restrictions?

      1. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

        The Georgia bill was signed into law on March 25, 2021, and MLB moved the All Star game on April 2. Manfred blew it and should resign or be asked to by the owners.

  3. Virginia Gentleman Avatar
    Virginia Gentleman

    Wait. Are you guys saying Trump actually didn’t win the last election? Somebody better inform many of the Republican candidates around the country.

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      1) He lost. 2) He did it to himself, which is the hardest thing for him to accept and 3) His monomania on that one point, his continued claims it was totally fraud, his one-element loyalty test, may yet destroy the Republican Party’s chances in November. I’m done tiptoeing around the point.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I think when a large number of GOP voters believe him – that the problem is way more than just him. Candidates are actually representing constituents with these views.

        But no worries, the conspiracy theory GOP voters line up at the polls with the rest of the more traditional GOP voters. They all vote the same no matter………. so no harm no foul….

        So, entirely true that the GOP… HAS been taken over by the wackadoddles…. way better than voting for leftists and progressives….


      2. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        1) Not in the minds of most Republicans, nor on the lips of the elected ilk.
        2) Not without assistance of a Republican side of the Senate who voted acquittal.
        3) Great! Good for you. Now convince just one of the two other Republicans who are still on their tiptoes.

      3. Randy Huffman Avatar
        Randy Huffman

        You are correct, Trump lost the election. Biden ran as a competent seasoned Moderate who would bring the country together, but he has been anything but. The Left can talk all they want about Republicans “wackadoodles” (reference Larry’s comment), but it is really the Left that has gone of the Progressive deep end. They are just in simple denial of the fact many Americans are well aware of.

        1. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

          Here’s our moron president talking about addressing “gun control” with background checks and regulating (which the monster passed) and regulating firearms based on what they look like (assault rifles). But then, he believes in protecting important rights with emanations and penumbras, rather than with laws like most nations do.

      4. Lefty665 Avatar

        1 & 2 for sure, 3 maybe he can turn it by himself, but not likely.

        There is you know currently a very prominent unpopular soft in the head Dem named Biden and his brain dead virtue signal sidekick to offset Trump, the Dems are down about a half dozen seats in redistricting, and 32, yes count ’em 32, Dems in the House are not running for re-election. Inflation, recession by election day, and the price of gas could have an impact too.

        That’s a big hole for even Trump to fill although I have no doubt he will try. Not to put too fine a point on it you might also ask McAuliffe how running against Trump worked out for him.

      5. James McCarthy Avatar
        James McCarthy

        That’s a relief.

  4. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

    The State of North Carolina estimated that the turnout for the recent primary elections (both parties) was about 20%.

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