Researchers from the Population Health Institute say that lack of access to infrastructure like broadband, recreation facilities, and public libraries hurts voter turnout in rural places.
The lowest voter turnout in the U.S. is in rural counties and small metropolitan areas, according to new data from County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, an annual report published by the Population Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin.
The County Health Rankings and Roadmaps program analyzes health across a variety of measures for every county in the U.S. The goal of the program is to create awareness about the many different factors that can influence community health. One of those indicators is voter turnout, calculated as a percentage of voting-age residents who cast a ballot.
In 2023, the focus of the report was on the connections between infrastructure, civic participation (like voting), and community health. Experts say that communities with better infrastructure have higher scores on measures of public health and higher rates of voter turnout.
Infrastructure is not the only factor that influences voter participation, however. Other factors that can influence turnout are race, economic status, education achievement, and more.
Rural Americans Have Less Access to Civic Infrastructure
“Rural places have lower access to broadband internet, access to libraries, parks and recreation facilities, and slightly lower access to adequately funded schools,” Keith Gennuso, researcher at the Population Health Institute, told the Daily Yonder.
These resources are what public health professionals call civic infrastructure, or the amenities that help a community provide services to its residents.
Civic infrastructure provides spaces “where people organize around shared issues,” said researcher Michael Stevenson in an interview. “One of the connections that we see is that civic infrastructure is not equally distributed.”
Gennuso and Stevenson said unequal access to civic infrastructure hurts voter turnout because it limits the spaces where residents feel like they can organize and participate in community affairs. If people feel like they don’t belong to a place, they are less likely to vote, studies show.
“Common shared spaces in a community provide a sense of belonging,” said Stevenson. “Those connections don’t happen as much when we don’t have that infrastructure.”
Unequal Access to Infrastructure Hurts Voter Turnout
Rural and small metropolitan counties have, on average, a 65% voter turnout rate, compared to 69% in the suburbs and larger metropolitan areas.
The suburbs of major metropolitan areas have the highest voter turnout rates. In places like Broomfield, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, the turnout rate is 94%.
A third of rural counties had voter turnout rates lower than 60%, while only 22% of nonrural areas had voter turnout rates that low. In rural Lake County, Tennessee, the voter turnout rate was 33%. Lake County had the second lowest turnout rate in the nation, right behind Chattahoochee County, Georgia, a suburban county with a turnout rate of 19%.
Research shows broadband internet access is one aspect of civic infrastructure that is particularly important in influencing turnout. Using data from the 2016 and 2018 midterms, experts from Harvard and the University of Virginia found that people with better internet access were more likely to vote, even when they accounted for demographic factors like age and race.
Automatic voter registration and mail in ballots could help improve voter turnout in rural places, Stevenson said. A 2022 report from the nonprofit Secure Democracy shows that restrictions on voting by mail hurt rural voters more than other Americans. Half of rural polling locations serve an area greater than 62 square miles, compared to 2 square miles in urban settings. Eliminating the burden of traveling long distances by allowing mail in ballots makes it easier for many Americans to cast their vote.
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