Respect Equality

The US is filled with voter turnout deserts, pushing inequalities: study

“Turnout deserts are located all across the country. It’s not as easy as simply saying they’re ‘only in rural or urban areas,’” says Michael Barber, professor at Brigham Young University and co-author of the study.
vector illustration of diverse people in a voting line

Story at a glance


  • Researchers analyzed the voting records from all 50 states from the 2014 and 2016 election cycles.

  • They found minority citizens and young people are less likely to vote, while Republicans are also more likely to vote than Democrats. 

  • The analysis also found that the country is filled with “turnout deserts”—a local community where comparatively few people vote. 

Minority citizens, young people and those who support the Democratic Party are much less likely to go out and vote, according to a new study that analyzed millions of voter records from across the country. 

Researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) and the University of Virginia analyzed voter registration lists from all 50 states that equated to about 400 million voter records across two election cycles—the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential election. 

Their analysis found that there are large and persistent gaps in voter turnout in the U.S. by race, age and political affiliation. Their data found that in 2016, white Americans voted at a rate of between 9 to 15 percentage points higher than Black, Asian and Hispanic Americans. 

In 2014, the gaps were even deeper—with white Americans voting at a rate between 9 to 18 percentage points higher than Black, Asian and Hispanic Americans.  

Overall, Republicans were also more likely to vote than Democrats in both 2014 and 2016. 


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The results of the study come as the country prepares for the November midterm elections and during a time where many states have developed new voting maps—a process that only happens once every 10 years and involves redrawing political lines that can determine the balance of power in Congress for the following decade. 

The analysis done was different than historical voter turnout studies, which have relied on survey data. However, most surveys measure self-reported levels of voter turnout and become susceptible to social desirability bias—where people tend to present themselves in a favorable way rather than give accurate answers. 

Researchers argued that surveys are also rarely large enough to provide thorough representation at the local level—with most designed to represent voters more broadly at the state level. 

Instead, researchers at BYU and the University of Virginia looked at voter files over survey data, since whether a citizen votes is considered public record in the U.S. By using this approach, researchers were able to access a snapshot of over 200 million individuals in a single year, by vote history, age, gender, race, geographic location and political party. 

Their results found that much of the country has large pockets of turnout deserts—a local community where comparatively few people vote. Black, Hispanic and Asian individuals are more likely to live in a turnout desert than white Americans, and Democrats are 2.5 times more likely to live in a turnout desert than Republicans. 

“Given the social component of voting, we have strong reason to suspect that turnout deserts are socially stratified in the United States and are self-reinforcing—thus perpetuating political inequality in the United States,” researchers wrote. 

Young people are also much more likely to live in a turnout desert than older citizens—with older citizens over the age of 60 voting roughly at a rate 40 percentage points higher than people 30 years of age or younger. 

“Turnout deserts are located all across the country. It’s not as easy as simply saying they’re ‘only in rural or urban areas,’” says Michael Barber, professor at BYU and co-author of the study. 

“People tend to live around people who are like them. If racial minorities are less likely to vote and they live around other minorities then the whole neighborhood is going to be less likely to vote.”  

Leaving turnout deserts unaddressed could allow political power to be unequally distributed across the U.S., leaving the nation far from its democratic aspirations.