Civic participation is a key ingredient of a well-functioning democracy, and voter turnout is one measure of the public’s trust in government. But there’s evidence to suggest a growing lack of political engagement among Americans.
Presidential elections tend to get citizens more energized than midterms. In 2016, a record 137.5 million Americans voted. Unfortunately, that number still only accounts for 61.4% of the voting-age population. The numbers are usually much worse for midterms, though 2018 had the highest turnout in decades, with 53.4% of eligible voters voting, compared to just 41.9% in 2014. Since the 2020 election is a presidential election, and a contentious one at that, we should expect to see relatively high turnout, though many people may choose to vote by mail rather than in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among developed nations, the U.S. is rank 26 of 35 when it comes to voter turnout. That’s no surprise, considering most states don’t emphasize civic education in their schools. Large proportions of the public fail even simple knowledge tests such as knowing whether one’s state requires identification in order to vote.
But of the factors that affect participation rates, income is an important one, with implications on both voter turnout and public policy. In the 2016 presidential election, only 41.4% of registered voters with family incomes of under $10,000 voted. In comparison, 80.3% of those with family incomes of $150,000 or more voted.
With Election Day close at hand, WalletHub compared the 50 states based on 11 key indicators of political engagement. They range from “percentage of registered voters in the 2016 presidential election” to “total political contributions per adult population.” Continue reading below for our findings, additional insight from political experts and a full description of our methodology.
Most Politically Engaged States
GDP per Capita Ranking
Tax Fairness Ranking
% of Citizen Voters by Age Group
‘Political Engagement Among Young People (Aged 18 to 24)’
‘Political Engagement Among the Elderly (Aged 65+)’
Note: For the states with N/A, the base was less than 75,000 and therefore too small to show the derived measure.
Given the relatively low level of political engagement in the U.S., we asked a panel of experts to share their insight on the voter-turnout disparities among states and advice for local governments on improving civic participation. Click on the experts’ profiles to read their bios and responses to the following key questions:
- Which states do you think will have a particularly high turnout this election year?
- Why are some states more politically engaged than others?
- What are effective local strategies for increasing political engagement?
- Do Super PACs (Political Action Committees) add value to the political process? Should they be more heavily regulated?
- Should corporations be able to make political contributions?
- Recent data shows that 83% of registered voters strongly believe it matters who wins the election, the highest in the last two decades. What can be done to promote and sustain long-term political engagement?
- Should personal contributions to campaigns be tax-deductible?
Ask the Experts
In order to determine the most and least politically engaged states, WalletHub compared the 50 states across 11 key metrics, which are listed below with their corresponding weights. Each metric was graded on a 100-point scale, with 100 representing the most political engagement.
For metrics marked with an asterisk (*), we calculated the population size using the square root of the population in order to avoid overcompensating for minor differences across states.
Finally, we determined each state's weighted average across all metrics to calculate its overall score and used the resulting scores to rank-order our sample.
- Percentage of Registered Voters in the 2016 Presidential Election: Full Weight (~8.33 Points)
- Percentage of Electorate Who Actually Voted in the 2018 Midterm Elections: Full Weight (~8.33 Points)
- Percentage of Electorate Who Actually Voted in the 2016 Presidential Election: Double Weight (~16.67 Points)
- Change in Percentage of Electorate Who Actually Voted in the 2016 Elections Compared with the 2012 Elections: Double Weight (~16.67 Points)
- Total Political Contributions per Adult Population: Double Weight (~16.67 Points)
- Civic Education Engagement: Half Weight (~4.17 Points)
- “State Preparedness for Voting in a Pandemic” Score: Full Weight (~8.33 Points)
Note: This metric scores whether a state has policies and preparations needed to address safety concerns of holding elections in November during the coronavirus pandemic.
- Voter Accessibility Policies: Half Weight (~4.17 Points)
- Preregistration for Young Voters Policies: Full Weight (~8.33 Points)
- Volunteer Political Campaign Opportunities per Capita*: Half Weight (~4.17 Points)
- Percentage of Residents Who Participate in Local Groups or Organizations: Half Weight (~4.17 Points)
Note: This metric refers to residents aged 16 and older.
Sources: Data used to create this ranking were collected from the U.S. Census Bureau, Center for Responsive Politics, Ballotpedia, Corporation for National and Community Service, National Conference of State Legislatures, Center for American Progress, Indeed and the Brookings Institution.