High voter turnout a sign of fraud? Not really

A man holds up a ballot.
Election Judge Andrew Goodell explains a ballot to a voter inside the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Updated: 3 p.m.

Democrat Joe Biden’s wins in Midwestern states including Minnesota were fueled by huge turnout from urban counties — suspiciously huge, according to off-base musings from some supporters of President Donald Trump.

The gist of the complaints: Total turnout in places such as Hennepin County was more than 90 percent of registered voters. Critics say those numbers seem implausibly high and imply that some sort of fraud is a more likely explanation. 

These critiques are off-base for two reasons:

First, they don’t provide any context. It can seem implausible that Hennepin County had 755,604 votes in 2020 — 90.4 percent of its 835,446 registered voters. But that’s not unique. Hennepin County’s turnout as a share of registered voters was 90.2 percent in 2016, and 92.1 percent in 2008. 

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Nor is this something that happens only in DFL strongholds. Wright County gave Trump 61.9 percent of the vote this year; it had 82,405 votes, or 94.3 percent of its 87,361 registered voters. Sherburne County had 92 percent turnout and gave Trump 65.1 percent of the vote; Morrison County was Trump’s best county in the state at 75.8 percent, and it had 93.5 percent turnout.

Increase in median MN county turnout, 2016 to 2020, by Biden vote share
Turnout from 2016 to 2020 increased across the board, in Minnesota counties where Joe Biden did well and where he did poorly.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Second, dividing total votes by registered voters isn’t the best way to calculate voter turnout in Minnesota — because Minnesota, like some other states, allows voters to register to vote on Election Day. The registered voter figures are accurate as of 7 a.m. on Election Day, but don’t count anyone who register later in the day. And these same-day registrations can be significant.

Wright County, for example, had 87,361 voters registered at 7 a.m., but another 7,091 registered same day — an 8.1 percent increase. Same-day voter registration stats aren’t available for Hennepin County in 2020, but in 2016 it had 76,638 same-day registrations, a 10.1 percent increase. If you divide total votes by the number of voters who were registered at the end of Election Day, instead of the beginning, you get figures closer to 80 percent than 90 percent.

A more accurate way to calculate voter turnout in a state with same-day registration doesn’t look at voter registration at all. Instead, it divides total voters by the count of the population that’s eligible to vote. 

For example, Minnesota as a state had 3,264,926 votes in the 2020 election. That’s 91 percent of the 3,589,751 voters who were registered at 7 a.m. But experts estimate that Minnesota has 4,118,462 eligible voters, people who could have walked into the polls, registered and cast a ballot. As a percent of eligible voters, Minnesota’s turnout is currently 79.28 — a modern record, ahead of 78.77 percent in 2004. 

There aren’t estimates of eligible voters this year yet available at the county level. The next-best thing is a statistic called “citizen voting-age population,” or “CVAP” — a count of the number of people who are U.S. citizens over the age of 18. The Census has released estimates of this at the county level as of 2018. Population growth means the citizen voting-age population totals will be a little larger, but these figures don’t account for people who are ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction, which would lower the citizen voting-age populations — about a 6 percent decrease, statewide. 

These imperfect 2018 figures give us an estimate of citizen voting-age population for Hennepin County of about 883,785 — which means Hennepin County’s turnout was about 85.5 percent of that.

That is up from 2016, when about 78.6 percent of Hennepin County’s voting-age citizens voted. But lots of Minnesota counties had big jumps. Anoka County, a large suburban county that Trump won in both years, saw 75.3 percent turnout in 2016 and 83.3 percent in 2020. The GOP stronghold of Wright County went from 77 percent turnout to 88 percent — higher than Hennepin.

Change in turnout and vote share in MN counties, 2016 vs. 2020
Change in turnout and vote share in Minnesota counties, 2016 vs. 2020. Turnout increased a lot both in counties where Donald Trump did well, and where he did poorly.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Minnesota’s voter turnout figures in 2020 were indeed very high — either best in the nation or just behind Maine. But this high voter turnout wasn’t implausible, or indicative of mass fraud by one political party. Turnout was already high before 2020, in both Democratic and Republican counties, and it went up in both of them.

Correction (Nov. 6, 2020): This story has been updated to correct the number of estimated eligible Minnesota voters in 2020 to 4,118,462. A previous version listed the number of eligible voters from 2012.