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American elections can change dramatically between presidential elections. Some of these changes were driven by political campaigns, with some states being more competitive than others in a given election; however, many of these changes were the result of new laws and policies that affect election administration.

According to the Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC) 2016 Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS), total turnout in the United States increased from 131.6 million in 2012 to 140.1 million in 2016 and the percentage of the citizen voting age population (CVAP) voting increased from 59.2 percent to 63 percent. In fact, five states—Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Oregon—reported turnout rates exceeding 70 percent of CVAP.

Americans continued their love affair with voting prior to Election Day; approximately 41 percent of all ballots were cast either in-person (17.2 percent) or remotely (24.1).

There were many other important changes in American elections between the 2012 and 2016 election. Consider the following changes to voter registration:

  • There was rapid growth in online voter registration (OVR). Since 2012, the number of states with OVR increased from 20 to 35 and the percentage of all new registrations coming from OVR increased from 5.3 percent to 17.4 percent.
  • Voter registration also changed at the polls, with a 75 percent increase in the use of e-poll books to check in voters from 2012 to 2016. This growth in technology use is from a relatively small base; just over 80 percent of local jurisdictions still use the tried and true method of paper poll books to check in voters.

OVR Percent Registration

All of these changes related to voter registration are having payoffs. One key place where technology seems to matter is in processing voter registration forms. EAVS data shows that the increase in OVR was partially responsible for the 3.6 percentage point decline in the number of voter registration forms that were rejected for either being duplicates or being invalid for some reason.

The biggest change in the 2016 election was in the participation of U.S. citizens living overseas and members of the uniformed services and their dependents. Together, these groups are referred to as UOCAVA voters, because of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), which guarantees their voting rights.

Overall, participation among U.S. citizens living overseas increased dramatically from 2012 to 2016. Typically, more ballots are sent to military personnel and their dependents compared to overseas citizens but, in 2016, the opposite was true.

Most strikingly, the number of ballots transmitted to overseas civilians increased by 23 percent from 2012 to 2016. Illinois, New Jersey and Washington are among the states that reported transmitting many more ballots to overseas civilians in 2016 than in 2012.

The full report is available on the EAC website. To see more of FMG’s policy work, visit the FMG Experience page.

About the author

Thad Hall

Dr. Thad Hall has over fourteen years of experience conducting public policy research for public sector clients and in academic settings. He has conducted research for the Federal Voting Assistance Program, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the states of New Mexico and Utah, as well as local governments, including Los Angeles County, California. Thad worked with FMG to help organizations to evaluate, measure, understand, and influence the way people think and make decisions. He has particular expertise in the area of election administration and policy implementation.

Thad is a published author, with more than 40 research articles and book chapters and seven books - including Evaluating Elections: A Handbook of Methods and Standards and Authorizing Policy -covering topics related to elections and policy change. His research has been supported by grants from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Pew Charitable Trusts, Demos, and Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Prior to joining Fors Marsh Group, Dr. Thad Hall was a professor of political science and served as the Director of the Master of Public Policy and Master of Public Administration Programs at University of Utah. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Georgia, a Master of Public Administration degree from Georgia State University, and a B.A. in political science from Oglethorpe University. He is a member of the American Political Science Association.

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