Arkansas ranks last in U.S. for voter turnout, registration, report on 2020 election says

For registration, turnout state lags

'I Voted' stickers are shown in this file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

Arkansas ranks last in the U.S. in both voter turnout and registration, according to a federal report on the 2020 election that was published last month.

The Natural State also had the highest absentee ballot rejection rate of all 50 states, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission's biennial report showed.

Arkansas, a state with a population of just over 3 million, had 1.4 million active registered voters in 2020, and the total voter turnout was about 1.2 million.

Just over 54% of Arkansas' eligible voting age population turned out to vote in 2020, the lowest proportion of any state. The next-lowest states for turnout were Oklahoma at 54.4% and West Virginia at 56.4%.

The highest states for turnout as a percentage of the eligible voting age population were Minnesota at 79.1%, Colorado at 78.2% and Maine at 76.2%.

Nationally, voter turnout was 67%, the highest level documented and a 6.7% increase from 2016 levels, according to the report. Nearly all states reported an increase in turnout from four years ago, including Arkansas, where participation increased by 6.2%.

The percentage of the U.S. electorate that voted by mail was nearly 20 percentage points higher than it was in 2016, at 43.1%.

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Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said researchers look at turnout as a proportion of the eligible voting age population, rather than as the percentage of registered voters who participated because "the registration process so often is a pretty central gatekeeper for participation."

"Arkansas, for 200 years, has designed a system to produce low voter turnout, and that system has worked exactly as designed," she said.

More than three-quarters of states offer online voter registration, and those aren't just blue states. Arkansas is one of seven states where it's unavailable; the others are Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Roughly half of states offer same-day registration or a period of overlap between in-person and early voting and the close of voter registration, so an individual can register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day.

In Arkansas, 63% of the eligible voting age population is active, registered voters, also the lowest of any state. The proportion of active registered voters declined slightly, from 66%, in 2018.

Wyoming had the second-lowest proportion of active registrations, at 69.7%. Oklahoma came in third at 70.3%. The top three states for voter registration were Alaska, Maine and New Hampshire.

Arkansas was the highest state for the proportion of mailed-in ballots that were rejected, with 6.4% tossed. There were 84,910 ballots cast by mail, comprising 7% of the state's turnout.

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Nationally, the most common reason for rejecting mailed ballots was a non-matching signature, which was why 32.8% of U.S. ballots were tossed, according to the report.

Arkansas' secretary of state, the state's chief election officer, is up for reelection in 2022. Incumbent John Thurston, a Republican from East End, has announced that he will seek another four year-term. He has drawn a primary challenger, state Rep. Mark Lowery of Maumelle, and a Democratic opponent, former Pulaski County Election Commission member Josh Price of Maumelle.

Thurston noted that Arkansas' turnout was at its highest since the 1988 election and that there was an increase of 324,984 voters over the 2018 election. He added that the state "saw a huge increase in voters casting an absentee ballot, many for the first time."

He said absentee ballots are reviewed by the local county election commissions, which determine at the local level the validity of the ballots.

"All of those positions are on a voluntary basis, but we work with election commissions to ensure they have all the training and most up to date changes in state law to ensure they can make the best determination on how those ballots are received and counted," Thurston said in an email.

He said his office put out several public service announcements and reports to help encourage people to vote and "ensure that every individual that wants to participate in the election is aware of the process to get registered and how and when they can begin casting votes." He said the office will continue that outreach in the coming cycle.

Thurston said he was not opposed to online voter registration, which would need to be allowed through the Legislature, when he announced his campaign in February. A Republican-sponsored bill to establish online voter registration failed in the GOP-dominated General Assembly earlier this year.

Candidates from both parties said Arkansas' low turnout and registration numbers are unsurprising -- other reports have also ranked Arkansas last in voter turnout for years -- but saw different reasons for the rankings.

Price said low registration and turnout are a result of the processes being difficult and confusing.

"It's really unfortunate to me that Arkansas really is the worst experience for voters in the nation," he said. "You have to jump through multiple hoops, in their mind, to vote."

Lowery said low election participation is a consequence of people not having confidence in the electoral system.

"Conservatives are really questioning whether elections can be fair over what they perceive happened to [former President Donald] Trump in other states," Lowery said, adding later that a lack of faith in the process could be a problem for voters of any political ideology.

Trump and his supporters have falsely claimed that he won the 2020 presidential election but was denied a second term because of fraud. Their allegations have been rejected by courts and officials in multiple states.

Price said the electoral process should be more streamlined, and if elected he would work to increase turnout through public outreach and education. He said he supports online voter registration.

He called Arkansas having the highest absentee ballot rejection rate "a travesty" and said the secretary of state's office should provide standardized guidelines to county election commissioners on how to deal with common absentee ballot errors.

Lowery said he believes online voter registration is problematic because of concerns about hacking, referring to the recent shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline due to a ransomware attack.

He touted legislation that he sponsored during the 2021 legislative session that he and other lawmakers dubbed an "election integrity" package, including Act 249, which strikes a provision in state law allowing voters without IDs to sign sworn statements in order to cast their ballots.

He said that would cut down on the number of absentee ballot rejections because "anytime that you're doing signature verification there's going to be an issue."

Parry said the impact of policy changes on increasing voter registration and turnout is limited, because the main predictors of voter participation are education and income, and Arkansas is chronically low in both.

"The lift is very heavy to try to increase voter turnout by moving institutional levers," she said.