If the right to vote is the most sacred, a surprising number of Americans don’t bother to use it. Across the country, turnout was dismally low in Tuesday’s midterm elections, when an estimated 36.6 percent of eligible voters made their way to the polls. That’s the lowest turnout in any election since 1940.

But one state stood out: In Maine, 59.3 percent of the 1 million residents who were eligible to vote made their voices heard, according to preliminary estimates from the U.S. Elections Project, maintained by University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald.

Turnout increases when voters think there’s something consequential at stake. In Maine, Republican Gov. Paul LePage was expected to lose his re-election bid; instead he won a little more than 48 percent of the vote, enough to beat out Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud and independent candidate Eliot Cutler.

Other states where more than half of voters showed up were also key players in the battle for critical governorships and control of the U.S. Senate. Turnout topped 55 percent in Alaska, 52 percent in Colorado and 50 percent in Iowa, all states where Republicans won or are leading races for Democratic-held Senate seats. Turnout almost reached 57 percent in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker won a pitched re-election battle, and 51 percent in Minnesota, where voters routinely show up in relatively high numbers.

On the other hand, voter apathy was especially acute in states that lacked exciting races and big spending. Fewer than 30 percent of voters in Indiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Utah cast ballots.

Political scientists and party operatives have tried for years to increase turnout. In 2008 and 2012, President Barack Obama’s campaign experimented with methods including Facebook messages from close friends reminding voters to get to the polls and mailings aimed at shaming occasional voters into showing up. This year, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee poured tens of millions of dollars into a turnout operation known as the Bannock Street Project; on the right, Americans for Prosperity spent about the same amount turning out conservative voters.

Maine voters can get to the polls — why not the rest of us?

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post’s GovBeat blog and is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tipsheet on politics.


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