Jon Margolis is a political columnist for VTDigger.
Election Day looms, but here in Vermont more than one-fourth of those who will vote have already voted.
The Secretary of State’s Office reported that as the week ended, more than 140,000 voters had returned their ballots to town clerks.
No surprise. Neither casting nor counting votes have been much of a problem in Vermont, which Secretary of State Jim Condos said was “in a unique position to be able to conduct the November election in this safe and secure manner.”
As, with a few hiccups (there are always a few) it seems to be doing.
Still no surprise. This is, after all, a relatively affluent, well-educated state, full of articulate and enlightened people who could be expected to display a high degree of civic and political engagement.
Or maybe not.
A new study by WalletHub, a personal finance website that dabbles in unconventional research, ranked all the states by how politically engaged they are.
Vermont’s grade might politely be designated: meh.
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The state finished 19th, in the top half, but not that far into the top half. It had a lower score than neighbors Massachusetts (10th) and New Hampshire (13th), but higher than New York (23rd). Its total score was well above the states at the bottom (Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico) but almost as far behind the top-ranked Maine, Washington and Colorado.
To reach its finding, WalletHub “compared the 50 states across 11 key metrics.” As is always the case with these studies, one can quarrel with the choice of which “metrics” to consider. Most of these – voter turnout, political contributions and campaign volunteer participation per capita – would be on anybody’s list.
But two of the study’s “metrics” might not fit Vermont. The state got a score of zero on “civic education engagement” because passing a civics course is not a requirement for high school graduation.
But Ted Fisher, the Agency of Education’s director of communications and legislative affairs, said Vermont high schools do teach civics even if a course by that name is not a specific requirement.
State law, Fisher said (via email) requires Vermont schools to provide “a minimum course of study” that has to include “citizenship, history, and government in Vermont and the United States.”
Vermont also got a low score, finishing 39th among the 50 states, for “volunteer political campaign opportunities per capita.”
WalletHub communications manager Diana Polk said that finding was based on “the number of volunteer political campaign opportunities per capita in each state,” according to Indeed.com, a job-finding search agency that connects would-be volunteers with political campaigns.
Maybe not the best way to measure political volunteering in Vermont, where many people live in small towns, know one another, and can get connected with a campaign without the help of a website.
But another reason for Vermont’s modest score cannot be explained away by finding flaws in WalletHub’s methodology. This other reason is straight up data: Vermonters don’t vote as dependably as people in many other states. In this state full of political activists, constant protest demonstrations and seemingly endless political argument, turnout is average.
Only 62.48% of the state’s eligible electorate (citizens of voting age) voted in the 2016 presidential election. That put Vermont’s turnout right in the middle – 25th highest. The states with the highest turnouts were Maine, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Minnesota. The lowest were Hawaii, California, Texas, New York and New Mexico.
What makes that more surprising is that Vermont has the third highest median age of any state (after Maine and New Hampshire) and older people are the most consistent voters.
Elderly Vermonters do vote. More than 77% of them voted in 2016. But that was far less than the 81% of the over-65s who voted in Maine, 81% in Colorado and 79% in Nebraska
Vermont ranked a bit higher – 19th – in the percentage of eligible citizens (54.9) who voted in the 2018 mid-term elections. But still well below the states with the biggest turnouts: Maine, Wisconsin, Montana, Minnesota, North Dakota and Washington.
The WalletHub study makes clear that Vermonters who decide not to vote can’t blame the state’s voting system. Vermont finished first on the study’s “voter accessibility policies” metric. In no other state is it easier to register, to vote, to have one’s vote counted.
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So why don’t more Vermonters vote?
One answer might be found in the bottom of the WalletHub findings. The least politically engaged state was Hawaii, a state more affluent than Vermont and almost as well educated, based on the percentage of adults with college degrees.
It’s also about as safely Democratic as Vermont in most elections. Hillary Clinton got 62% of the vote there in 2016. Gov. David Ige was reelected by the same margin in 2018. Both senators and its two House members are Democrats who rarely face strong challenges from Republicans.
The most politically engaged states in the WalletHub study had competitive races for president in 2016 and for senator and/or governor in 2018. The least engaged did not. So Vermont could end up with a higher political engagement score if its statewide races were won or lost by closer margins.
It is both logical and wrong for people to decide not to vote when there is little doubt about who will win. Logical because if the outcome is certain, it makes sense not to bother. It won’t make any difference.
Wrong because everyone should vote because it is everyone’s civic duty in a democracy, whether or not it makes a difference.
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