The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We probably just saw one of the lowest-turnout elections in American history

Turnout was low last week. Not "midterm low," or "unusually low," but "historically low." As we noted on Monday, it was probably the lowest since World War II. But it was possibly also one of the four lowest-turnout elections since the election of Thomas Jefferson. You know, before there was such a thing as "Alabama."

The U.S. Election Project, run by Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, compiles data on voter turnout over time. It's tricky to estimate voter turnout in the 1700s and 1800s, and McDonald explains on his site how the numbers are calculated. So comparing 2014 to 1804 (the Jefferson example) should be considered a rough comparison at best.

That rough comparison, using McDonald's data, looks like this.

The figure for 2014, currently 36.3 percent, is not yet final. McDonald explains that, too, in his compilation of vote tallies from the states. These numbers are not percentages of registered voters, the common metric for evaluating turnout. Instead, McDonald compares the number of votes with the number of people in the state eligible to vote.

The incomplete 2014 data uses a less-precise "votes for the highest office on the ballot" figure for that first number. Since some people vote only for other races, it's a less-precise assessment. But since turnout in last Tuesday's election has been the subject of much discussion (including several attempts to assess any effects of voter ID laws) we pulled the equivalent highest-office data from the last four midterm elections to see how states fared. Below, the ten states with the highest and lowest turnout in 2014 -- relative to the national average.

At the top are the lowest-turnout states. That includes both Texas and Mississippi, states that added new voter ID restrictions this year. Texas' line is bolded, showing that -- relative to the country on the whole -- turnout was low, but not much lower than it has been in recent years. (If you're wondering if gigantic Texas' drop itself brought the national turnout down enough, skewing that relationship: No. Texas' drop accounted for only about 3.5 percent of the national drop in turnout.) Mississippi is muddled in with a number of similar-turnout states.

Neither of which is proof that voter ID didn't have an effect, we'll note, but it's hard to spot an effect. California and New York both had lower turnout than the country, thanks in part to boring elections. Turnout is a complex thing. It's hard to pin high or low turnout on any one factor.

The highest turnout states over the past four midterms all beat the national average by a wide margin, and all have been above the national average each time. They're states that had interesting contests, which certainly boosted the highest-office turnout. South Dakota is interesting here; the second-highest turnout relative to the country in 2002, its been dropping steadily.

All preliminary numbers, of course. They're still counting votes in several states, which will increase these figures slightly. And states will post final overall vote tallies which will cement McDonald's numbers more firmly. The lessons we can learn: People vote more when there's a reason to vote. And people vote a lot less than they used to.