Three Takeaways from the 2021 Elections

by Nina Patel

November 29, 2021

This year, expanded voter access in Virginia resulted in record turnout for an off-cycle election. Both Democrats and Republicans turned out in higher numbers than in 2017, the last gubernatorial election year, and a Republican victory refutes the claim that expanded voter access always benefits Democrats. Meanwhile, voters in New York State failed to pass voting rights ballot initiatives, but with turnout just under 20 percent of registered voters, this outcome may not truly reflect public sentiment around expanded ballot access measures. Off-cycle elections highlight the problem of low voter turnout, and the importance of election cycle timing, particularly when introducing ballot initiatives to expand voting access.

New Laws in Virginia Made It Easier to Vote and Led to High Voter Turnout Among Both Parties

Virginia had a significant election this year, electing a new governor and their 100-member House of Delegates. In the 2019-2020 legislative cycle, Virginia passed 14 bills aimed at improving ballot access. You can read more about the changes in their voting laws here. These new laws significantly increased access for voters. 2021 saw the highest turnout in a Virginia gubernatorial election in about a quarter century. In total, 55 percent of the 5.9 million eligible voters cast a ballot this year. By contrast, only 47.6 percent of Virginia’s eligible voters cast their ballots in 2017.

While turnout was high among both Democrats and Republicans, Republicans showed a higher change in voter turnout from the last gubernatorial election. In counties carried by Republican Glenn Youngkin, turnout was up 30 percent over the 2017 numbers, compared to 15 percent for counties carried by Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

Not all forms of voting were equally utilized across the political spectrum. This was the first gubernatorial election in which Virginians were offered 45 days of no-excuse early voting, with over one million voters casting their ballots in person prior to election day. This was more than 6 times the early voters as in 2017, when voters were only offered 7 days of early voting, and an excuse was required. Republicans as well as Democrats urged their supporters to take advantage of the expanded early voting period, but evidence suggests Democrats were more likely to vote early in-person. Data from TargetSmart estimated that 54.6 percent of all early voters were Democrats. Other reforms, including expanded ID options and making Election Day a statewide holiday, made it easier for eligible voters across the political spectrum to go to the polls and make their voices heard. What we have seen in Virginia illustrates what we know to be true: increased voter access does not compromise security or accuracy, and our elections continue to be fair and secure. The Virginia election also highlights that voting access should not be a partisan issue. Expanded ballot access benefits our democracy and all voters regardless of partisan affiliation.

Low Turnout in New York Killed Same-Day Registration and No-Excuse Absentee Initiatives

Meanwhile, in New York, voters rejected two ballot initiatives that would have expanded voter access statewide through constitutional amendment. New York law requires constitutional amendments pass two successive legislative sessions and then be presented to voters through a ballot initiative. One of these initiatives would have brought New York in line with 33 states that either offer no excuse absentee voting or mail ballots to all voters every election, a practice known as at-will mail voting. Another initiative would have updated New York’s voter registration laws by eliminating the current requirement that voters register at least 10 days before an election, and instead allow for same-day registration.

Both measures passed Democratic controlled legislatures, and these issues are widely popular with voters across the country. So why did they fail in New York?

As always, much of it came down to voter education and ground game. New York’s off-cycle state elections generally have significantly lower turnout. What’s more, some organizers pointed to the confusing ballot language of the proposals, one calling it “impenetrable.” Flawed ballot design may have also been a contributing factor, resulting in the initiative questions appearing on the back of the ballot. Nearly 350,000 voters left the mail voting proposal blank, likely because they were not informed or failed to realize that they had to flip their ballot over. What’s more, opponents of the measures such as the New York Conservative Party spent nearly 3 million to defeat the initiative while proponents such as the state’s Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent just $300,000 on the campaign to support the initiatives.  

Off-Cycle Elections Bring Low Turnout

The outcome in New York highlights a problem with off-cycle elections more generally: extremely low voter turnout. Off-cycle elections have no federal race on the ballot, but that does not mean they are unimportant. Off-cycle elections include elections for key political offices that can impact a community’s budget priorities, criminal justice system, or, in the case of New York: election administration and voter access. Only a handful of states – namely, Virginia, New Jersey, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana – hold major statewide elections in off-cycle years. Many cities hold mayoral races in off-cycle years. This year, Cincinnati, New York City, Seattle, and Boston all selected a mayor during an off-cycle election.

Off-cycle elections trail far behind federal elections in voter turnout. For example, in Virginia, 75 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election and 72 percent of registered voters turned out for the 2016 presidential election.  In contrast, only 55 percent of registered voters in Virginia cast a ballot in the 2021 governor’s race and that was considered to be record high turnout for an off-cycle gubernatorial election. Even the federal midterm turnout is higher than the statewide off cycle elections – further highlighting the voter turnout gap between federal elections and off-cycle elections. In 2018, 59.5 percent of registered voters in Virginia turned out.

City elections fare even worse for voter participation. A recent report on election timing and its effect on turnout found abysmally low voter turnout in elections across the country.  In New York City this year, just under 20 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. With such low voter participation, it’s hard to say that these off-cycle elections represent a democratic outcome when such a small slice of the population participates. 

So why hold off-cycle elections? The avoidance of federal control over elections guided Mississippi and Kentucky in choosing off-cycle elections. In 1890, a proposed federal bill (a precursor to the Voting Rights Act) would have overseen state elections where a federal office was on the ballot. This motivation has resurfaced this year as Congress has proposed to establish federal election standards nationwide through the Freedom to Vote Act and other federal legislation. Legislators in three states, Alaska, New Hampshire, and Texas, introduced bills to separate federal elections from state elections under certain conditions. (New Hampshire’s bill has been signed into law.)

Proponents of off-cycle elections cite a desire to avoid the influence of federal politics in city and local elections as justification to keep them separate. But low voter participation in off-cycle elections empowers special interest groups who can spend less money for greater influence, only needing to worry about turning out their voters rather than persuading the larger electorate. Which brings us back to the pro-voter initiatives in New York. Advocates of the pro-voter measures assumed they would pass in a largely Democratic state, but a well-funded and focused opposition campaign defeated same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting. The lesson? If we are interested in ensuring that the highest number of eligible voters cast their ballots, voter access alone is not enough. We should pay attention to election timing and discourage off-cycle elections where possible.

This Hot Policy Take is powered by VRL’s State Voting Rights Tracker: