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The Most Politically Engaged States - 2016 Edition

November is just around the corner, which means it’s almost time for Americans to go out and vote. However, there is wide disparity in voter turnout across the 50 states. In 2014, some states had as little as 33% voter participation while others had as high as 61%.

Voting is really a two-step process: first you register to vote and then you cast your ballot. Someone who registers to vote but doesn’t actually vote can still be considered more politically engaged than someone who never registered at all. And, of course, voting isn’t the only way to be an engaged citizen, you can also donate to campaigns and volunteer. So states with high numbers of voter registration, voter turnout and campaign donations can be said to be politically engaged.

With these factors in mind, we at SmartAsset crunched the numbers to find out which are the most politically engaged states.

This is SmartAsset’s second study on political engagement. Read the 2014 version here.

Data and Methodology

To determine the level of political engagement in each state we looked at data on six separate factors. (Note: We included additional factors this year, so this study is not directly comparable to the 2014 study.)

  • 2014, 2012 and 2010 Voter Turnout – Voter turnout is the percentage of resident citizens who actually cast a ballot. The data is from the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • 2014 Voter Registration – Voter registration is the percentage of resident citizens who registered to vote. The data is from the U.S. Census Bureau
  • 2012 and 2008 Presidential Donations (per capita donation as a percent of median income) – Data on campaign donations comes from the Center for Responsive Politics and is available at opensecrets.org.

After collecting data on these six factors, we ranked every state according to each factor. So, for example, the state with the highest 2012 voter turnout was ranked first in that category, while the state with the lowest 2012 per capita donation as a percent of median income was ranked last in that category.

The index, on a 100-point scale, was calculated based on each state’s ranking in each of the six factors.

Key Findings

  • Engaged New England – Politics are a big deal in New England. Of the six states which make up New England, five are in the top 10. The odd man out is Rhode Island which ranked 24th.
  • Apathetic South – The only state south of the Mason-Dixon line to break into the top 10 was Maryland. Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia all ranked in the bottom 15 for political engagement.
  • The President Matters – Due to the visibility and attention given to the quadrennial presidential election, voter turnout is much higher in presidential election years. In Mississippi, for example, the difference in turnout in 2012 and 2014 was as big as 30%.

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The Most Politically Engaged States

1. Colorado

Colorado is one of the closest races during this year’s presidential election and, as a result, is one of the key swing states. It ranks highly in all the engagement categories we looked at. According to metrics like voter turnout, Colorado is becoming more engaged. The state ranked 9th in voter turnout in 2010 and 2nd in 2014.

Coloradans are generous, too. After controlling for population and income, we found that Colorado citizens donated the 5th most in the 2012 presidential election. That year, Colorado had an impressive 70.4% voter participation.

2. Massachusetts

Massachusetts is an interesting place, politically speaking. Judging by its presidential voting record, one would assume Massachusetts is a very liberal state. But since 1991 it has only had one democrat for governor. The Bay State came into national focus when former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012 and he was forced to step back from the liberal-leaning health care reforms he helped put into place. That year 70% of the state’s voters turned up at polls.

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3. Maine

Maine, like Colorado before it, will have the opportunity to legalize marijuana this year. It will be interesting to see if that mobilizes the citizenry in the same way it did in Colorado. In the meantime, Maine is already a very politically engaged state. It ranked first for voter turnout in 2014 and 2010, with 61.5% and 59.4% of the citizenry coming out to vote, respectively. Curiously, Mainers do not get as energized by presidential elections as some other states. In 2012, Maine had a voter turnout of 68% – only good enough to rank 9th in the country that year.

4. Oregon

Oregon voters tend to be engaged no matter the scenario. In 2010 and 2014, its voter turnout was around 56%, while in 2012, a presidential election year, the turnout rate jumped up to 67%. Many states saw a large drop in donations from 2008 to 2012. Not Oregon. Oregon residents gave an estimated $2.61 per capita in 2008 and that figure only decline 12 cents to $2.49 in 2012. Compare that to New Mexico, where donations per capita was $7.06 in 2008 and dropped all the way to $2.82 in 2012.

5. Maryland

If Maryland did a better job of turning registered voters into actual voters it would probably find itself higher in our study. Maryland had the 3rd highest level of registered voters in 2014, with 72% of citizens registered to vote but only 48% of citizens actually went to the polls. Like Washington and Oregon, Maryland tends to go for Democrats and FiveThirtyEight gives Hillary Clinton a 99.8% chance of winning the state this year.

6. Washington

Washington shares more than just a border with Oregon – it also shares its political engagement temperament. Overall its voters are mostly engaged but it does not get as big as a boost in turnout during presidential election years as other states do. The fact that the Evergreen State tends to be solidly Democrat may explain the somewhat lackluster turnout during presidential elections, there’s simply not as much at stake compared to states like Colorado.

7. Minnesota

Minnesotans are rabid voters who tend to keep their money in their wallets. According to our data, Minnesota ranked no lower than 6th in voter turnout in 2010, 2012 and 2014 but ranked no higher than 30th for donations in 2008 and 2012. Minnesota is one of the tighter races during this election, according to FiveThirtyEight. The site gives Clinton a 81.6% chance to take the 10 electoral votes in the state.

8. Vermont

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders gave Hillary Clinton her biggest test for the Democratic Party nomination. But voter turnout in the Green Mountain State is trending down. In 2010, Vermont had the 5th highest voter turnout at 55%. That number fell to 42.5% in 2014. The state still managed to rank in our top 10 thanks to high donations per capita relative to income.

9. New Hampshire

While close geographically, Vermont and New Hampshire share little in terms of political engagement. Vermont tends to have lower turnout with high relative donations while New Hampshire has the opposite. In 2012, New Hampshire’s voter turnout was 69.4% – tying it with Iowa for the sixth highest in the country. But in terms of donations, New Hampshire only ranked 19th that year. The state also tends to be more unpredictable in terms of presidential elections. FiveThirtyEight gives Trump a 25.8% chance to win there, which makes it an important state to watch come November.

10. Connecticut

Connecticut appears to be made up of some of the most giving citizenry in the country judging by campaign donations. The Constitution State ranked in the top 5 for donations in both years we analyzed the data. Unfortunately when it comes to actually showing up at the polls, the state is lagging. In 2010 and 2014 – the two non-presidential voting years we analyzed – Connecticut did not even crack 50% voter turnout.

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The Most Politically Engaged States

Note: The FiveThirtyEight election forecasts mentioned in this article are from October 4, 2016.

Questions about our study? Contact us at press@smartasset.com.

Photo credit:©iStock.com/hermosawave

Derek Miller, CEPF® Derek Miller is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh where he studied economics. He is passionate about using data to help people make better financial decisions. Derek is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® (CEPF®) and a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing. He is a data journalist whose expertise is in finding the stories within the numbers. Derek's writing has been featured on Yahoo, AOL, and Huffington Post. He believes the biggest financial mistake people make is waiting too late to save for retirement and missing out on the wonders of compounding interest. Derek lives in Brooklyn.
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