If you live in Kentucky, you probably didn’t vote yesterday.
Turnout in Tuesday’s gubernatorial election was simply dreadful. According to the state’s chief elections officer, preliminary results show that only 30.7 percent of voters actually cast a ballot in this off-off-year election. That compares with 45.9 percent of voters in 2014 — a midterm election that featured the lowest turnout rate since World War II — and 59.4 percent of voters during the 2012 presidential race.
It is likely, moreover, that 2015’s poor turnout will have a massive impact on many Kentuckians’ lives. Indeed, it is likely that many low-income Kentucky residents will literally die because so few people cast a ballot in the state’s gubernatorial race.
On the eve of the election, Real Clear Politics’s polling average of the Kentucky governor’s race showed Democrat Jack Conway leading Republican Matt Bevin by more than five points. Yet, with most of the state sitting out this election, Bevin instead defeated Conway 53–44.
Conway was widely expected to continue incumbent Gov. Steve Beshear’s (D-KY) successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which helped over half-a-million Kentuckians obtain health coverage in its first year. Bevin, by contrast, is a staunch opponent of Obamacare who has promised to shut down the state-run health care exchange. Last February, when asked about the law’s Medicaid expansion, Bevin responded unequivocally — “Absolutely. No question about it. I would reverse that immediately.”
An estimated 400,000 people will lose their health care if Bevin follows through on this statement.
Kentucky has not yet released data showing turnout rates broken down by party, although they typically do so at some point after the election. As a general rule, however, low turnout is a Republican’s best friend. Voters who are financially secure and who have firmly settled in a community are more likely to vote than others who are more transient and have less financial certainty. That means that groups which tend to prefer Republicans — older voters, white voters, wealthy voters — tend to turn out at higher rates than younger voters, lower income voters and voters of color — all of whom are more likely to prefer Democrats.
There is another important factor that influences turnout as well. When control of the White House was at stake in 2012, well over half of the state’s voters turned out. When control of the Senate was at stake in 2014, over 45 percent showed up. One year later, when no federal offices were on the ballot, voter turnout dropped a third from the already low rate in 2014. And this is a consistent trend seen across the country. In Houston, which voted on Tuesday to scuttle anti-discrimination protections, turnout was only 26.9 percent in this election with no federal candidates on the ballot. Turnout in Ferguson, Missouri, home of the heavy-handed police response to protesters angered by the fatal shooting of a black teenager, turnout fell from about 55 percent in 2012 to 11.7 percent in 2013, when the city held its last municipal election before the protests.
(Last April, outrage at the Ferguson police sufficiently increased turnout that two African Americans were elected to the city council. Yet even under these conditions, turnout only rose to 29 percent.)
The timing of an election, in other words, decides who will actually turn out to vote in that election, and Republicans have a built in advantage when elections are held at odd times that lead to depressed turnout. 400,000 people could lose health care in Kentucky, and it is because the state’s gubernatorial election is scheduled at a time that gives one party a clear advantage over the other.