Electric Plug-in Vehicle Sales Flourish in Democratic States. Here’s Why

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While researching a recent Post Alley story on electric vehicles, I noticed a huge difference among the states in ownership of EVs. There are strong-EV states and weak-EV states. Washington is a strong EV state. Oregon is a strong EV state. Wyoming is not.

The strong-EV states are all voting Democrat; the weak-EV states all favor Republicans. I expected something like that, which is why I went looking for it. I didn’t expect the relationship to be so strong.

The key measure is not the number of EVs per state. Texas has many more EVs than Washington, but electrics are more popular here, per-capita. Texas has a bigger population, that’s all. The key measurement is the number of vehicles per 1,000 people. There is data for 2022 that includes full EVs and plug-in hybrids.

California, with more than 27 plug-in vehicles per 1,000 people in 2022, has the highest density. At the bottom of the list are North Dakota and Mississippi, with barely one plug-in vehicle per 1,000. Twenty-seven to one is a huge difference. Among the states, Washington ranks No. 3, after Hawaii, with 15 EVs and plug-in hybrids per 1,000 people.

Here is a table of the top and bottom 10 states:

Top States

 Bottom States

Of the 10 states on the top list, all went for Biden in 2020, the top two by more than 60 percent, and Washington, No. 3, by 58 percent. Of the 20 U.S. senators from the top 10 states, all are Democrats except for Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, an independent who was elected as a Democrat (and is not running again).

Of the 10 states on the bottom list, all voted for Trump. In only two of the 10 did Biden’s vote exceed 40 percent. Of the 20 senators from these states, all are Republicans except for West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who was the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus (and is not running again), before leaving the party last week.

The two lists differ in ways other than politics. California, Hawaii, and Washington, ranking 1, 2, and 3 on that list, have the highest gasoline prices in the nation — Hawaii ($4.79 for regular, as of May 25) because gasoline has to be shipped there on tankers, and California ($5.13) and Washington ($4.56), as a matter of state policy. The two states’ tax per gallon, 51 cents for California and 49.4 cents for Washington, are No. 2 and No. 3 in the country, after Pennsylvania’s, 57.6 cents. Washington and California are also the only two states that require their refiners to bid for permits to emit carbon dioxide, a program that has raised operating costs to Washington’s oil refiners by nearly $2 billion in the past two years, causing them to raise prices by 50 cents a gallon.

Other differences in state policy affect EVs. Some states, such as Washington, have lots of subsidies and incentives for EVs, and some don’t. The U.S. Department of Energy has made a list of the number of laws and incentives that each state has for “alternative fuels and advanced vehicles.” Here are the top 10:

And the bottom 10:

The list counts all policies as equal, which, at the detailed level, makes no sense. The big picture does make a kind of sense, though. Some state governments are doing a lot with rules and subsidies, and some aren’t. And at the top of the list — no surprise — are California and Washington. Some of the policies of the Evergreen State, in addition to squeezing the oil refiners, are grants for EV chargers, policies encouraging EV chargers in apartment buildings, and the upcoming direct subsidies to EV buyers.

And look at the politics of this list of states. The top 10 are Democrat and the bottom 10 are Republican.

An opponent of EVs might use this list to argue that the EV market is a creation of state policy: Where the state pushes EVs, more people buy them. The reality, I think, is the other way around: A state’s policy reflects the beliefs of the people who live there.

We’re back to Democrats and Republicans. Is that what’s moving the EV market? I found a study that says so. Written by three academics from Ohio State University, it’s called “The Partisan Politics of Low-Carbon Transport: Why Democrats Are More Likely to Adopt Electric Vehicles than Republicans in the United States.”

The academics surveyed 545 people in Ohio — not a big EV state — asking them about their political beliefs and whether they would consider buying an EV. The academics conclude that Democrats are more interested in EVs because it allows owners to advertise how green they are (“green to be seen and brown to stay down”) and how tech-savvy they are, thereby to “reinforce aspects of self-identity.”

The Ohio researchers’ conclusion is backed up by a Gallup poll taken in March 2023. The poll found that Democrats are much more interested in buying EVs.

It’s a nice theory, but it’s not as strong as it sounds. If you ask people about their beliefs, you get one answer; if you look at how they spend their money, the answer is not quite so clear.

Using data from a company called L2 Data, the Environmental Defense Fund looked at the 31 states (not Washington!) that register voters by political party. They had a computer match voter registrations with vehicle registrations. Of EV owners in the 31 states, they found that 48 percent are Democrats, 31 percent are Republicans and the rest independents. In the “swing” states of Arizona and Nevada, EV owners broke 38 percent Democrat and 34 percent Republican, the rest independent.

That’s a difference, but it’s not overwhelming. The Environmental Defense Fund (which strongly supports EVs) concluded: “EV ownership is bipartisan.”

That a person owns an EV is not a strong marker that he or she is a Democrat. But for a state, a relatively high percentage of EVs on the road is a very reliable marker that it’s a Democratic state.

 

Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey was a business reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1980s and 1990s and from 2000 to his retirement in 2013 was an editorial writer and columnist for the Seattle Times. He is the author of The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s first Depression, and is at work on a history of Seattle in the 1930s. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Bruce. I would posit that the reason for EV adoption is much more nuanced. High gasoline prices play a big part as California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii all have the highest gasoline prices in the country. There are also factors like education level, population density, and income level that also come into play. Communities with high income levels and who are willing to be first adopters/innovators are more likely to purchase electric vehicles. Furthermore, it is well documented that the best way to get people to consider EVs is to see your neighbor driving one. All of this means that politics might be more correlation rather than causation in terms of EV adoption. Frankly, I would expect North Dakota to lag in EV adoption regardless of whether Democrat or Republican was in the governor seat.

  2. One interesting consequence of this will be “fuel” availability. As the numbers on EVs tip in States which are favorable, the gas stations will decline. And less competition will raise prices. More decline.

    So lets say some folks from ND want to go to the Coast, they will have an increasingly painful time gassing up. However, the cost of a slow charge station is pretty low, so red state hotels can offer overnight chargers to their paying customers.

    There’s going to be a huge imbalance of opportunity cost here for gas cars as time goes on.

  3. The small sizes of the individual Hawaiian islands, save The Big Island, also favors electric cars. Oahu is only about 600 square miles large, compared with Rhode Island’s 800 and King County’s 2,200. On an island that size, you won’t have to worry as much about your battery running out because you’ll always be within reach of a charging station.

    I’m not ready to buy an electric car here because I’m not confident there’s a sufficient number of charging stations in the areas outside Snohomish, King and Pierce Counties in case I need to drive there. Maybe in another decade.

  4. Thanks Bruce for providing this overview of the “politics or not” of EV ownership. It’s good to have the EDF more detailed data on EV ownership and party affiliation.Seems like buying a car of any type or make is for most people a “what’s practical “ question. EV’s are not quite a practical choice yet for rural areas of any state partly due to the weird way we have decided to manage charging stations. Except for Tesla, EV car companies put the charging of cars on you and the private sector. Hence, even in our state and our numbers of EVs, charging stations are few and far between across many rural areas. The stations that do exist are not maintained well. EVs are not yet a practical choice if I live in North Dakota or Idaho or rural counties in Washington where I need a vehicle to commute distances for work. It’s interesting to watch our state attempt to expand charging stations and make them reliable. Soon, though not soon enough, EV drivers will have reliable DC fast chargers along all the major corridors (not just I-5) and in state routes connecting rural centers to each other (Colville to Tonasket, Davenport to Ephrata). Excited to see partnerships forming between Tribes and Ports to plan and establish charging stations. Charging stations are seen as economic development tools to bring travelers into towns, tribal business parks etc. Political affiliation is not getting in the way of these efforts.

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