States brace for massive voter turnout in 2020

States brace for massive voter turnout in 2020
© Stefani Reynolds

State elections officials are preparing for a massive surge in voter turnout in 2020 after elections this year broke participation records across the country.

In interviews, secretaries of state said they paid close attention to elections in Kentucky, Louisiana and Virginia this year, all states where more voters than ever showed up for what are usually sleepy off-year contests. Several said they had seen a sharp increase in turnout in their own backyards, even in nonpartisan school board elections.

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Those results, coupled with higher-than-expected turnout in the 2018 midterms and polls that show voters are extremely enthusiastic about next year’s presidential election, are stark warnings to elections administrators who are already making preparations for what could be record-breaking turnout.

“We know there’s a fire that’s been lit out there, and we definitely saw [it] in Louisiana and Kentucky, some of the trends there,” said Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (R), who is also president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. “We’re going to see an increase again from previous years, and we know we’d better be ready.”

In Louisiana, more than 1.5 million voters cast a ballot in last week’s gubernatorial runoff, a turnout rate of just more than 50 percent. It was the highest number of votes cast in a gubernatorial election since 1995.

In Kentucky, 42 percent of registered voters turned out to vote earlier this month. The 1.4 million votes split between Gov.-elect Andy Beshear (D) and Gov. Matt Bevin (R) represent the largest number of ballots cast in a Kentucky gubernatorial election in the commonwealth’s 227-year history.

And in Virginia, nearly 2.4 million voters showed up to cast ballots in state legislative elections, according to preliminary counts by the Department of Elections, a 42 percent turnout. That was 13 points higher than in 2015, when just over 1.5 million Virginians voted in legislative elections, and only slightly below the 2.6 million voters who cast ballots in the 2017 gubernatorial election.

Administrators in other states say they are seeing the same kinds of interest at home. Pate pointed to school board election results that showed a 156 percent increase in voter turnout. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman (R) marveled at the number of voters who cast ballots in Seattle City Council elections.

“We saw a record turnout in 2016 in Ohio and we also saw a record turnout in 2018,” said Frank LaRose (R), serving his first term as Ohio’s secretary of state. “That’s nothing but good news. The fact is the people of Ohio are civically engaged and active.”

Political scientists tracking election turnout say as many as two-thirds of registered voters could show up next year. The 50.3 percent of eligible voters who showed up in the 2018 midterm elections was the highest turnout since 1914, according to Michael McDonald, a turnout expert at the University of Florida. If two-thirds of voters cast ballots next year, it would be the highest tally in a presidential election since 1900 — a time when the eligible electorate did not include women.

There are other indicators that voters want in on the action next year. In California, voter rolls have grown by 3 million in the last four years, thanks in part to a new automatic voter registration policy implemented a year and a half ago. The state now has more registered voters, 20.3 million, than the total population of all but two other states.

“If our own voter registration numbers are any indicator, we’re going to be looking at record turnout in 2020, both in the March primary and the November general,” said Alex Padilla (D), the California secretary of state. “Everywhere I go in the state of California, people are paying attention. In some quarters there’s a lot of excitement, in some quarters there’s a lot of anxiety.”

The administrators say the potential for high turnout has spurred them to make early preparations, including recruiting poll workers and working with county offices to beef up cybersecurity and improve their voting equipment. 

Pate said all 99 counties in Iowa will use electronic poll books for the first time, which would cut down on wait times.

 In Ohio, LaRose has given county officials a 34-point checklist they must complete by the end of January to be prepared. Padilla has warned counties about the unusually large number of ballots they need to have printed and ready for voters.

Several states said they are making special preparations for a torrent of voters who show up to register on Election Day itself. In states that allow voters to register the same day they cast a ballot, officials are “preparing for this really crushing onslaught of people waiting until the last minute to change their address or registering for the first time,” Wyman said.

“People are going to hit us pretty hard in the last days of the election cycle,” Wyman said.

The surge in turnout also means a large number of voters who rarely cast ballots are likely to participate. Those voters are less likely to know where their polling place is, potentially making them susceptible to misinformation that disenfranchises them. The National Association of Secretaries of State has launched a program meant to highlight trusted sources of information to combat any nefarious efforts.

“The focus that we’ve been really zeroed in on is cybersecurity and misinformation campaigns,” Wyman said. “How do we combat the misinformation that’s being put out on social media and the internet that voters might think is real? ... Now, information like that can be put out and it can look very real, especially to a voter who doesn’t participate all the time.”

After Russian hackers broke into voter registration systems in several states in 2016, election administrators are backing up their systems as they anticipate another likely attack by foreign interests. Most states have increased cybersecurity, and others are in the process of doing so; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisSaudi officer ripped US support of Israel in tweet before naval base shooting: report The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - A crucial week on impeachment FBI identifies Pensacola shooter as Saudi Royal Saudi Air Force second lieutenant MORE (R) on Monday rolled out a budget that calls for $6.6 million in new spending on election security, including 10 new employees dedicated solely to supporting local elections officials.

“Most states now have put together their own election war rooms, so we’re monitoring all the activities at these poll sites,” Pate said. “As much as we talk about all this great technology, we’ve got a lot of paper backups.”

--This report was updated on Nov. 20 at 7:08 a.m.