The Highs and Lows of Midwest Voter Turnout

In the 2020 presidential election, Midwestern states with the highest voter turnouts in the nation bordered states with the lowest voter turnout. These numbers demonstrate the distinctness of each state and the nuances that exist in the region. The region turns out to be less predictable than expected, but why do these discrepancies happen in the first place? Cover graphic by Jason Mecchi for Midstory.

The Midwest is often portrayed as one homogeneous region — “Flyover Country,” a part of America synonymous with corn fields, simple niceties and a majority white population.

Particularly during important election seasons, media coverage of the Midwest has generally settled on the narrative that the entire region moves together. Whether it be for former President Trump in 2016 or against him in 2018, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and the other seven Midwestern states were ostensibly united in their political allegiances. 

This purportedly predictable cluster of states, however, became the center of the political limelight during the 2020 presidential elections precisely because the results were unexpected. 

Midwestern swing states like Iowa and Minnesota were key battleground states. Wisconsin and Michigan flipped blue from 2016, helping to win Biden the presidency and proving the region to be less predictable than anticipated. 

Voter turnout rates in Midwestern states contribute to this developing and complicated story. In the Midwest, states that are often cast in the same political light have vastly different voter turnout rates.

For instance, in 2020, Minnesota led the nation in voter turnout when nearly 80% of eligible voters from the North Star State cast ballots. Conversely, Indiana — just a few states away — had one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country at almost 62%.

According to Anthony Fowler, a research professor at Princeton University specializing in electoral data, a state’s culture surrounding elections can contribute to varying degrees of civic engagement. 

“Minnesota is kind of famous for having a vibrant political culture and they’ve always had, for a long time, high political participation, high political knowledge and so forth,” he said. “There are pretty big differences within the Midwest that are maybe almost as big as the differences you see between other regions of the U.S. … There isn’t really a singular distinct Midwest identity and culture.”

Michigan saw 74% of its population turn out to vote in the 2020 election. According to Rose Reilly, a senior at the University of Michigan and a student leader of youth voter advocacy group Turn Up Turnout, part of the state’s success with civic engagement is due to how much people care.

“I’d say that the state of Michigan is one in which, in my very anecdotal experience, young people are really fired up about the electoral process,” Reilly said.

Michigan also led the country in youth voter turnout in the 2022 midterm elections with a rate of 37%

“I do feel that there is kind of a strong sentiment amongst young people in the state to focus on this work and to work for improved access to the ballot,” she said.

Alberto Medina, communications lead for Tuft University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), said early education about civic responsibilities can help to develop a voting-positive culture.

“Understanding your place in society, understanding the impact that you can have,” he said, “these are foundational civic attitudes and skills that … should be developed as part of K through 12 education.”

Electoral policy is also a contributor to youth voter turnout, according to Reilly. Same-day registration, online voter registration and similar policies reduce barriers to voting for Michigan’s population. 

In particular, Reilly said policy changes implemented by Michigan’s current Department of State make voting more approachable for young voters. One such change, automatic voter registration, automatically registers all eligible voters when they apply for or renew their driver’s license. 

According to CIRCLE, electoral policies that increased access to the ballot had a positive effect on voter turnout. For example, states with open mail-in voting policies had the highest youth voter turnout rates while states with the most restrictive policies had the lowest turnout.

According to Fowler, however, electoral policies make a marginal contribution to boosting civic engagement. Although accessible voting policies do increase voter turnout, that impact may be in the range of a percentage point, he said. 

“I suspect the biggest explanation for the difference has to do with just the demographics and the underlying political interests of the residents rather than differences in the actual electoral system,” Fowler said. 

So, what demographics are most important to look at? Race and ethnicity play a significant role, according to Medina. For instance, nationwide, 43% of eligible White voters voted in the past three midterm elections. Conversely, 27% of Black, 19% of Hispanic and 21% of Asian eligible citizens voted. 

“They’re stubborn differences that have historically been in place that we’ve made some progress in, but certainly not enough…and that, of course, are a reflection of broader societal and historical inequities,” Medina said.

“They’re stubborn differences that have historically been in place that we’ve made some progress in, but certainly not enough,” Medina said, “and that, of course, are a reflection of broader societal and historical inequities.”

Although the Midwest is largely more white than the rest of the country, there are still people of all racial groups living across the region. Discrepancies in who is voting along state lines may require solutions that push for more access to voting for marginalized groups.

Studies of census data show that age, wealth and level of education all correlate to voter turnout, as well. Those with higher incomes are less affected by transportation, information or health barriers to voting and are therefore more likely to vote. So are those with college degrees and those over 65. (Voters with college degrees typically have higher incomes, and retired voters have more time and move less, meaning no need to re-register.)

As voter turnout reflects the demographic makeup of a state, variances in levels of civic engagement point towards distinct characteristics between state populations. So, maybe instead of thinking of the Midwest as a political monolith, we can address voter turnout in the region by finding the gaps present in each state’s diverse populations.


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