The 2018 election is shaping up to be a historic year for midterm voter turnout, with many states recording levels of voter participation not seen for a non-presidential election in decades.
“Certainly in states like Florida and Virginia we’re seeing turnout rates that are at least at 20-year highs,” says Corwin Smidt, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University. “This is a high water mark for midterm turnout.”
Approximately 114 million votes were cast in U.S. House races in 2018, compared to 83 million in 2014, according to estimates by the New York Times
In Florida, more than 8 million voters cast ballots in the Senate matchup between Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson, with 99% of the vote counted. Compare that to 6 million votes in the 2014 midterm and 5.5 million in 2010 – another wave election.
Virginia’s Senate race between Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine and Republican Corey Stewart drew nearly 3.3 million votes, according to preliminary tallies. About 2.2 million votes were cast in both 2010 and 2014.
Many other states have also registered unusually high levels of voter participation. In Kentucky, more than 1.5 million ballots were cast in the 2018 election as compared to 1.45 million in 2014, despite the fact that no state-wide office was open this election cycle. In 2014, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was up for reelection. In New Jersey, nearly 2.8 million people voted in the 2018 Senate race. Less than 2 million ballots were cast in 2014.
Turnout levels haven’t quite reached the numbers seen in recent presidential elections, but they are historic for a midterm year according to Smidt. Total turnout numbers may even shape up to be similar to those seen in lower-turnout presidential elections, like those in 1992 and 1996.
Another important factor is less tangible: the increasing nationalization and polarization of American politics. For President Donald Trump, that has meant that he could motivate his base to vote in the midterms by bringing up hot-button issues like immigration and race, and by injecting his own ego into local races. “A vote for Marsha is really a vote for me,” Trump said at an October campaign rally for Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn – who handily beat a popular former Democratic governor to win a seat in the Senate.
“In general, the nationalization of politics has made it that turnout is not so much about local issues as it is national issues. That’s a trend that’s been going on in politics for the last 20 years,” Smidt tells TIME. “Knowing that it’s more of a party battle, not a vote over an incumbent…many people are more interested in turning out.”
The knowledge that control over the House or Senate may change hands can increase turnout, as it did this election cycle, can also drive voter turnout. State ballot initiatives like Florida’s Amendment 4 also can raise enthusiasm for voting, as do low Presidential approval ratings and increasingly efficient election administration.
The numbers may indicate just how concerned voters are for the future of the United States.
“2002 was an intense election over a possible invasion in Iraq. 2006, it was a high turnout in regards to negativity about how things were going in Iraq,” explains Smidt. “And even then we’re having higher turnout now, or as high, if not higher, than those midterms.”
Correction, Nov. 7
The original version of this story misstated the year in which 1.5 million ballots were cast. It was 2018, not 2014.
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