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.