Much of the Ohio Valley saw historic levels of voter turnout in the 2020 election, as election officials expanded voting options to reduce the risk from coronavirus. 

Compared to the 2016 election, voter turnout for the 2020 general election increased slightly in Kentucky and Ohio, while West Virginia —  which had some of the nation’s lowest turnout in 2016 — saw a substantial jump, bringing the state up to just above the historic national average.   

A data analysis by the Ohio Valley ReSource compared the percentage of registered voters casting ballots this year to turnout from 2016. The analysis shows West Virginia turnout jumped by 5 points to 62.5%, compared to 57.4% in 2016.

Ohio turnout increased slightly from 71.3% to 72%. Kentucky only had a slight increase of less than a percentage point.

These numbers might change slightly in the coming weeks as the states finish up counting any left out and absentee ballots.

West Virginia

Nine counties in West Virginia posted a more than 10% increase in registered voters who cast their ballots compared to 2016, including Calhoun, Hampshire, Monroe, Greenbrier and Ritchie. 

West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner said the state set a record and “an example for the rest of the nation on how to conduct a smooth and successful election during these unprecedented times.” 

Voters cast more than 793,000 ballots across the state, Warner said. 

Marybeth Beller, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Marshall University, called the increase from 2016 “stunning,” and credited Republicans who turned out in droves on Election Day. 

“That party should be very, very proud of its efforts,” Beller said. 

Kentucky

Several county clerks throughout Kentucky credited the election success to the expanded voting options that Kentucky voters had for the election: three weeks of early, in-person voting and greater freedom to use mail-in absentee voting. 

“This many people would not have taken that opportunity, I don’t believe, to have gone and voted if they hadn’t had the choice of more days to vote,” Hardin County Clerk Debbie Donnelly said.

Kentucky’s Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams both support making some of those expanded options permanent. 

“If you had told me that when I took office that we would have a record number of voting and it would’ve been in the context of a pandemic, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Adams said in an interview with partner station WFPL.

Although over 90 Kentucky counties saw an increase in turnout, the state’s two largest cities — Louisville and Lexington — saw a drop in turnout according to the ReSource analysis.  

Ohio and the Ohio Valley

In Ohio the largest increase in turnout came in Holmes Co., a 6.5% jump. Eight counties, including Athens and Hamilton, saw a decline of more than 1%.

Overall, the three Ohio Valley states had a one percentage point increase in registered voter turnout as 85%, or 224 counties, reported an increase in the registered voters who cast ballots. 

Despite these increases, at least 7 counties still recorded a turnout of less than 50%, including West Virginia’s McDowell County, which has in recent elections reported among the lowest turnout in the country. But even there voting increased by 6 percentage points compared to the 2016 General Election. 

Kentucky’s Edmonson County, where just one in two registered voters cast their ballots, recorded the biggest fall in the Ohio Valley with about an 8% decline in turnout.

ReSource reporter Brittany Patterson contributed to this story.

The Ohio Valley ReSource gets support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and our partner stations. 

Suhail is a data journalist for WFPL, KyCIR, and the Ohio Valley Resource.