The 2018 midterms saw the highest turnout in a non-presidential national election since universal suffrage. This historic high stands in stark contrast to the 2014 midterms which saw the lowest turnout since 1946. This begs the question: is this a one-off spike in interest, or a sign of the future trajectory for U.S. elections?
A number of factors probably contributed to the high turnout in 2018, but the most important is the remarkable levels of interest in politics Americans are currently displaying. Special elections this year saw Democrats thriving in even the lowest turnout races due to a significant enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican voters - a typical dynamic between voters for the party in power and those whose party is out of power. The presidential administration and Republican congressional leadership led an unprecedented turnout operation this cycle, leveraging high levels of media attention to boost relevance of the midterm to voters, and leading to the highest midterm vote totals ever for congressional Republicans: 50 million. Unfortunately, their campaign also boosted the importance of the election for Democrats as well, leading to a Democrat vote total of over 60 million, and climbing.
At the state level, these gains appeared across the board, but were most concentrated in states that typically experience low to mid-level turnout. Only two states, Louisiana and Alaska, saw turnout decline, and by less than 1 percent in each state.
Not every midterm can feature an administration this good at making headlines, nor is every administration interested in running a long and forceful campaign during the most important period of policymaking for new presidents. However, the passage of a number of ballot initiatives this year, such as same day registration in Maryland and felon re-enfranchisement in Florida, as well as signs that the new Congress plans to make voting rights a priority, point to upward momentum for turnout compared to the post-1970 baseline.