One talking point frequently used by advocates of the National Popular Vote interstate compact (NPV) is that it would increase voter turnout. The argument is that would-be voters in so-called “safe” states – places presidential campaigns spend little time or other resources – decide not to vote because they feel their vote doesn’t matter. Enacting NPV, they claim, will convince these people to vote.
There is a kernel of truth here – presidential campaigns do spend a lot of time and effort to turn out voters in so-called “battleground states.” While this has an effect, it is not as significant as the NPV argument implies (research tends to show modest, if any, effectiveness for turnout operations).
But the claim that higher turnout is an automatic and obvious result of being a battleground state doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Consider the top third of states in terms of turnout during the 2020 election, according to Statista.com, which in order are: Minnesota, Colorado, Maine, Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon. New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont, Michigan, Iowa, Montana, Virginia, Massachusetts, Florida, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.
Obviously, there are some battleground states in that list – but only eight of the seventeen, and that’s being very generous in including Minnesota (Biden by 7%), Iowa (Trump by 8%), and New Hampshire (Biden by 7%) as being competitive states (a better descriptor might be that someone, at some point early in the campaign, though they might be competitive – advertising buys in the states suggest neither campaign really put a lot into trying to win those states).
In other words, a majority of states with the highest voter turnout, including the top two, were not battleground states. On the other hand, battleground states Arizona and Nevada finished below the national average of 66.7% turnout (as did Texas, a late arrival to swing-state status that still saw at least $21 million in advertising in the last few weeks).
What about turnout in non–presidential elections? In the 2018 elections, the top seventeen states in order for voter turnout, according to the United States Elections Project, were: Minnesota, Colorado, Wisconsin, Montana, Oregon, Maine, North Dakota, Washington, Iowa, Michigan, Vermont, Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Virginia, Florida, and Maryland.
That list, and even that order, should look awfully familiar. In fact, only three of the seventeen states among the top third in turnout for 2020 weren’t also among the top third in 2018. The bottom third for 2020 and 2018 also look very similar: fifteen out of the seventeen states with the lowest turnout rates in 2020 also appear in the bottom third in 2018.
Clearly, turnout is more closely related to factors other than how much time and money presidential campaigns spend in the state. Those who believe NPV will produce a consequential increase in voter turnout should consider the evidence, which suggests that there are other much more effective changes waiting to be championed that are much more likely to achieve that result.