If one thing became clear on Election Day, it was that Americans were eager to vote.
They turned out in huge numbers Tuesday, capping off a tumultuous, monthslong midterm campaign marked by racial division, bitter disputes over immigration and two episodes of domestic terrorism, including one that left 11 people dead at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Turnout was significantly higher this year than in the 2014 midterm elections, when Republicans made sweeping gains in the House and Senate during President Barack Obama’s final term. The number of voters was up by double-digit percentages in some counties even before all votes were counted.
But the demographic breakdown of those who voted was not clear Tuesday night, and it was impossible to say yet whether, as voting rights advocates feared, restrictive voting laws in some states had deterred African-American and Hispanic voters.
The increases appeared to happen across the board, in both Democratic- and Republican-leaning counties. In Florida, with 98 percent of precincts reporting statewide, turnout in Duval and Pasco counties — both Republican — was up by 38 percent and 29 percent over 2014. In Broward and Hillsborough counties, both Democratic, turnout was up by 30 and 35 percent.
Those gains were not just a matter of population growth, as the increases in vote totals substantially exceeded increases in population. In the four Florida counties examined, population increases from 2014 to 2017 — the most recent estimates available from the Census Bureau — ranged from 3.7 to 8.6 percent.
The surge in turnout was not confined to Election Day: The number of people voting early was also up sharply. Roughly 39 million people nationwide cast early ballots this year, whether in person or by mail, compared with 27.4 million in 2014, according to data compiled by Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who studies American elections. That is an increase of more than 42 percent.
In some states, the number of early voters doubled, if not more. In Florida, more than 5.2 million people voted early this year, compared with 3.1 million in 2014. In New Jersey, the number of early voters rose to roughly 355,000 from about 124,000 in 2014. And in Georgia, the number of early voters leapt from slightly more than 1 million in 2014 to just more than 2 million this year.
The jump reflected a range of factors. Voter enthusiasm in a polarized political environment was one, but shifting local dynamics at the state level — including new rules and procedures that govern how voting takes place — also contributed.
The increases in Election Day turnout were particularly noteworthy because of widespread concerns about voter suppression. Lines at some polling places were as long as four hours, and the polls stayed open late in a few precincts where technical problems had prevented people from voting earlier in the day. Complaints about malfunctioning machines and jammed scanners spilled forth on social media from polling places across the country.
That was in addition to legal and structural barriers, ranging from voter identification laws to inconvenient polling locations, that had raised alarm.
One major voting rights battleground this year was Georgia, where the Republican candidate for governor, Brian Kemp, used his authority as secretary of state to subject the registrations of tens of thousands of mostly nonwhite voters to extra scrutiny. But turnout in the state was up 26 percent from 2014 with only 86 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday night.
A similar dynamic unfolded in North Dakota, where a new law threatened to disenfranchise many people who live on Native American reservations. But with just 89 percent of precincts reporting, turnout in North Dakota was up about 9 percent over 2014.
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