When It Comes To Voting, Easier is Better

  • Research
  • 9 min read

Public Wise conducted a study to understand the relationship between voting laws and voter turnout. We used administrative and proprietary data to construct a data set covering voter turnout, voter laws, county level characteristics, and political spending for the years 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018. We then conducted multivariable regression analysis to clarify which voting laws are associated with more people voting. 

Top-lines

  • Voter turnout is highest when local election officials make it easy to vote.
  • The more flexibility around when and where people vote, the more people actually turn out to vote.
  • How easy it is to vote has absolutely no relationship to rates of voter fraud, which are exceedingly low across the country.

    Here are some laws we found were associated with higher voter turnout:
    • No-excuse absentee voting
    • Vote by mail
    • Vote by mail ballot cure processes
    • Same day voter registration
    • Automatic voter registration
    • Voting without an ID

Most of our findings may not seem that surprising. The idea that more people will do something when that thing is easier may strike some as common sense.

It’s important to take intuition and speculation out of decision making for how our democracy functions, so we wanted to see what we could show with actual data.

Read more about our data, methodology, and findings.

Download the Technical Report


Voting is a fundamental right in the United States, enshrined in Article I of the Constitution and refined by multiple constitutional amendments. As state legislatures take up laws related to elections and voting, and as the country has just come out of a federal election conducted under the pall of a global pandemic, the details of election administration loom particularly large in the current national political narrative.

Election administration is a complex web of federal, state, and local laws that dictate how, when, and where voting can take place, how ballots will be counted, and who can participate. These laws and the procedures they create vary at the state and county level. This means that when, where, and how Sally can vote in Idaho is likely very different from when, where, and how Mark can vote in Alabama.

Just as laws vary from state to state, voter turnout also varies. On average, voter turnout in the US is relatively low compared to other major democracies, coming in at 56% of the voting age population in 2016, compared to 69% in Germany, 77% in the Netherlands, and 82% in Sweden in their respective 2017 federal elections. State by state, turnout in 2016 ranged from just over 42% of the citizen voting age population casting a ballot in Hawaii to almost 73% of the citizen voting age population casting a ballot in Minnesota. 

NOTE: This map shows total ballots cast for highest office divided by the citizen voting age population times 100. The colors on the map correspond to quintiles, meaning that the states are ordered by voter turnout and then broken into five groups with approximately 20% of the distribution in each group.

SOURCE: Map produced by Public Wise. Data on the total votes for highest office come from Dave Liep’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. The Citizen Voting Age Population data come from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Since both election administration laws and voter turnout vary from place to place across the country, we wanted to know if there was any meaningful way in which the variation in laws was related to the variation in turnout. We gathered data from both publicly available and proprietary sources to construct a data set that covered every county in the United States in the years 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018. This data set contains information for each county on the number of ballots that were cast in each election, the kind of people who lived there, their average incomes and education levels, how much money was spent there on political campaigns and television ads, and the voting and election laws of the state the county is in, all of which we controlled for in our analyses.

First, we looked at overall ease of voting. Since laws don’t happen in a vacuum, we assumed that counties in states with a preponderance of laws that make it easier to vote might have higher turnout than states that did not have as many of those laws. So we took as many voting laws as we could categorize into yes and no (yes this voting convenience is available or no it is not) and added them up for all the states so that states with the most yeses were states where it was easier to vote overall and states with the least yeses were states where it was harder to vote overall. There were 24 laws we could categorize this way and in 2016 states ranged from having as many as 19 of these voting conveniences to as few as 3.

NOTE: This map shows how many laws states had in place to make it easier to vote in 2016. The scale was constructed by taking 24 laws that could be categorized as yes the state has this convenience or no the state does not and then adding up how many yeses for each state. The colors on the map correspond to quintiles, meaning that the states are ordered by their vote ease score and then broken into five groups with approximately 20% of the distribution in each group.

SOURCE: Map produced by Public Wise. Data on the voting laws by state come from the Voting Rights Lab.

Just looking at where states fall on this scale of how easy it is to vote, there are some places that might be surprising.

Take New York. With only 56.4% voter turnout in 2016, it was right in line with the national average for that presidential election, but much lower than its geographic neighbors, which all had voter turnout above 62%. New York also rated pretty low in terms of ease of voting with only 8 laws in place from our scale in 2016. But we don’t hear much in the news about voting issues in New York, except maybe when there are long lines at polling places in Brooklyn. On the other hand, in 2016, Colorado had 69.9% voter turnout and 19 (!) laws in place from our scale. But we also don’t hear a lot about how Colorado is really getting voting right. The bottom line is that reality can be surprising and that’s why we think it is so important to use data analysis to figure out what is really going on. 

Using our new voting ease scale, we used multivariable regression analysis to look at the relationship between voting ease and voter turnout, controlling for county level characteristics like racial and ethnic population composition, income and education, and political spending. Unsurprisingly, we found that, all else equal, voter turnout was higher in counties that were in states that had more measures to make voting easier overall. Each additional law that made voting easier corresponded to voter turnout that was higher in both presidential and midterm years, although the association was stronger in midterm years.

Next, we looked at the association between individual voting laws and voter turnout. Controlling for all the same county level characteristics, we conducted separate analyses for laws related to absentee voting, vote by mail, early voting, voter ID, and more. What we found was that there tends to be higher voter turnout in places with laws that expand options for when, where, and how to vote, especially in midterm election years.

Specifically, no-excuse absentee voting, absentee ballot tracking, same day voter registration, automatic voter registration, early voting, vote by mail and dropboxes, voter centers, and ballot cure, the ability to vote both early and on election day without an ID, and no removal from the voter rolls for failure to vote were all associated with higher voter turnout, particularly in midterm election years.

Ballot cure and removal for not voting deserve some extra consideration. That there is higher turnout where there are ballot cure procedures in place for mail in votes suggests that those places have higher turnout in part because a higher percentage of attempted votes are successful. Let’s think about that for a second. What we think of as voter turnout is the percentage of the voting age population that successfully submits a ballot. What isn’t captured in those statistics is the percentage of the voting age population that attempted to submit a ballot but was thwarted by mistakes they made on their ballot (think naked ballots in Pennsylvania), a failed signature verification, issues with voter ID, etc. Similarly, removal from the rolls for failure to vote in previous elections might result in a voter thinking they are all set to vote and then finding out at the polls that they are no longer registered. In that case, without the opportunity to register on election day at the polls, that potential voter can no longer have their ballot counted. 

Finally, we found that policies like automatic voter registration, same day voter registration, and early voting were only associated with higher turnout 2 or more years following their passage into law. This suggests that certain voting policies take time from passage to implementation to adoption before they begin to make an impact. This also suggests that certain voting policies could benefit from more visible education campaigns to make sure the voting eligible population knows what sorts of options are available to them as they decide how and when to exercise their voting rights.

Now for anyone who might wonder if making it easier to vote might also make voter fraud more prevalent, we checked that out, too. In fact, neither ease of voting, nor any of the individual laws that we evaluated, had any connection to rates of voter fraud.