Lower Presidential Election Turnout in Safe Republican States (Part II)

by Claire Daviss // Published December 4, 2014

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A state’s status as a “swing state” or a “safe state” during presidential elections can greatly affect its voter turnout over time. FairVote hypothesizes that states’ status as “safe states” depresses voter turnout.  Under the current Electoral College rules, in which most states award all of their electoral votes to the statewide winner, voters often feel that their votes have little effect on the outcome of the election, and are therefore less inclined to vote.

Three years ago, FairVote investigated this phenomenon by looking at thirteen states that have given their electoral votes to Republican candidates in every presidential election since 1980: Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. These 13 states may be considered the safest Republican states. To study the effect that “safe state” status has on voter turnout, FairVote compared the combined turnout in these 13 safe Republican states to the turnout in the remaining states in each presidential election since 1988. We now update that investigation using data from the 2012 presidential election.

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The 2012 presidential election shows a continuation of the trend that FairVote noted in our first assessment in 2011. Turnout in the 13 safe Republican states studied was lower than turnout in the remaining states in every presidential election since 1988. More significantly, the turnout differential between the 13 safest Republican states and the remaining states is growing. In 1988, the turnout differential was 2.56%. It has increased in every presidential election since 1988, and in 2012, it was 6.79%. In short, the longer a state is a Republican safe state, the lower the state’s voter turnout is compared to other states.

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As long as the winner-take-all rule is in place, candidates will have incentive to focus on a small selection of swing states and to ignore states that consistently give their electoral votes to a certain political party’s candidate. Voters in the latter states, finding themselves ignored and without a means to impact the election, will be less and less inclined to turnout.


Claire Daviss is a Democracy Fellow at FairVote. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireDaviss_FV.