America Letter: Higher voter turnout boding well for Democrats
Despite structural advantages in some states, shifting demographics will help party in time
Election workers examine ballots during a hand recount of votes in the US Senate race in Palm Beach County, November 16th, 2018. Photograph: Michele Eve Sandberg/AFP/Getty
More than two weeks after the US midterm elections, a final result has yet to emerge as a handful of House races remain to be counted.
But as Americans digest the results this Thanksgiving weekend, there is plenty of food for thought as the country looks ahead to 2020.
While the election may have presented a split picture and a somewhat gloomy reflection on the polarisation that has become entrenched in American society, it was a good day for democracy. More people voted in the midterm elections than any non-presidential election since 1914.
A total of 49.2 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballot – this compares to a turnout of 36.4 per cent in the midterms of 2014. Though still low by international standards, this uptick in political participation is a positive sign.
Most of this surge in voter engagement reflected a higher turnout by Democratic voters. In the House of Representatives race – where they flipped at least 39 seats – the Democrats outpaced Republicans significantly. More than 60 million people voted for Democrats in the House race.
This compares to about 45 million for Republicans in 2010 when the party wrested control of the House of Representatives following a backlash against Obamacare. The level of support achieved by the Democrats is impressive – particularly as it is close to the 63 million votes Donald Trump received in the 2016 presidential election.
But while the Democrats surged ahead in the popular vote once again, that did not necessarily translate into electoral wins.
Democrats won reliably Democratic seats by large margins, though they failed to win House seats in conservative states such as Idaho or Montana for example. Democratic gains in Republican-leaning suburbs around the country were significant, however, and a real concern for Republicans going into 2020.
On the Senate side, the picture was equally skewed – Democratic candidates garnered 12 million more votes than Republicans in Senate races though the party still managed to lose some seats. The apparent discrepancy again puts the spotlight on the Senate electoral process.
Republicans continue to benefit from a structural advantage that the Senate system gives to conservative-leaning rural states. Under America’s electoral system, each of the 50 states gets two senators, regardless of population. Consequently, California, with a population of more than 40 million, has the same representation in the Senate as Wyoming, with a population of just over half a million.
While defenders of the system argue that the Senate was never supposed to truly represent the popular vote, but rather give a voice to states, the political hue of the Senate has implications far beyond parliamentary democracy.
In particular, the Senate plays a direct role in electing judges to the supreme court and to federal courts, a system that has resulted in a more conservative-leaning supreme court than the political dispensation of the population as a whole as indicated by the popular vote.
While there appears to be little appetite within the US to change the system, Democrats have long taken solace from demographic changes which are expected to help their party in the long term.
Population shifts and the increasing diversification of American society suggest that the political map is changing in their favour. The Democrats may not have been able to break the “red wall” of vast swathes of Republican-leaning rural America, but they are already making inroads into once reliably Republican states such as Arizona, Nevada and even Texas as the population of those states becomes more diverse.
This month’s election also delivered positive outcomes for Democrats looking to address the problem of voter representation. Several states included on their ballots proposals to change local election law. Voters in Michigan, for example, voted by two to one to loosen voter requirements, including moves to allow same-day voter registration, the expansion of absentee voting and the reintroduction of “straight” party voting, which allows voters to vote for one party for all positions by just checking one box – a long-standing process in Michigan that was abolished by the Republican-led legislature in 2015.
In Florida, voters backed an amendment to allow felons to vote, with some exceptions – a move that will restore voting rights to more than one million people.
In an election that was also notable for unsubstantiated allegations by President Donald Trump of voter fraud, moves to ensure that all US citizens who are entitled to vote can do so are a welcome development. Whether it will help the Democrats electorally will be a central question for the party as it heads into the next election cycle.