Can We Do Better?

Turnout in the 2016 presidential election was 60.2 percent of eligible voters. There are still significant numbers of nonvoters. America claims to be "the world's greatest democracy" so the question must be asked, can we do better? 

The Changing Electorate
The campaigns, parties, aligned organizations, and many other groups all work to encourage people to vote.  The debacle of Florida in 2000 reminded voters that voting can indeed make a difference.  While 2008 saw the highest turnout since 1968, as 61.6 percent of eligible voters turned out, in 2012 turnout dipped to 58.0 percent of eligible voters and in 2016 turnout settled at 60.2 percent of eligible voters.

In the 2016 general election three states had turnout of greater than 70 percent of eligible voters: Minnesota (74.1%), New Hampshire (71.5%), Maine (70.7%).  At the other extreme were Hawaii (41.7%) and West Virginia (49.9%).

 A May 2017 Census Bureau report "Voting in America: A Look at the 2016 Presidential Election" found that non-Hispanic whites accounted for 73.3% of reported voters (compared to 73.7% in 2012); the share of non-Hispanic black voters decreased to 11.9% in 2016 (from 12.9% in 2012) (>), the Hispanic share increased to 9.2% (from 8.4%), and the Asian share increased to 3.6% (from 2.8%) (1, 2).  Different demographic groups turn out at different levels.  According to the report, "In 2016, turnout increased to 65.3 percent for non-Hispanic whites, but decreased to 59.6 percent for non-Hispanic blacks."  The urban-rural divide was stark in 2016.  According to the Associated Presss, Trump won 2,626 counties to 487 for Clinton.  White rural voters may be increasingly outnumbered, but were instrumental in his success.

A Pew Research Center report from Jan. 2019 takes an early look at the 2020 electorate; among their projections:

"nonwhites will account for a third of eligible voters – their largest share ever;"

"Hispanics will be the largest racial or ethnic minority group in the electorate, accounting for just over 13% of eligible voters – slightly more than blacks; " (+)

Asians will account for 5% of the 2020 electorate;

"one-in-ten eligible voters will be members of Generation Z, the Americans who will be between the ages 18 and 23 next year."

"nearly a quarter of the electorate (23%) will be ages 65 and older, the highest such share since at least 1970."

Voter ID Laws and Voting Rights
Efforts of a number of states to pass voter ID laws, ostensibly because of concerns about voter fraud, have been a significant issue in recent election cycles.  The National Conference of State Legislatures has an excellent page on the history of these laws showing that the first such law went into effect in 1950, by 2000 there were laws in 14 states requiring some form of ID, and as of Jan. 2019 thirty-five states have such laws (1, 2).  NCSL also notes that the strictness of the ID requirements varies considerably.  The concern is that restrictive voter ID laws are implemented to discourage and suppress voter turnout, particularly among communities of color.  The Brennan Center for Justice, which has been at the forefront of efforts to counter unduly restrictive voter ID laws, points out that "fraud is vanishingly rare, and does not happen on a scale even close to that necessary to 'rig' an election (+)."  Following the 2016 election, President-elect Trump famously claimed, without evidence, that millions of people had voted illegally.  Trump even created a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, but it proved something of a sham and was forced to disband in Jan. 2018 (+).

The fight to protect voting rights is never-ending and encompasses a range of issues beyond just voter ID, from purging of voter rolls to the rights of people with felony convictions to vote after they have served their terms to unequal allocation of election resources.  There is a constant stream of litigation in the area, some of which has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.  In one of the most far-reaching decisions, the Court, in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder, overturned a key provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  On rare occasions a voting rights issue may be put directly to the voters.  In Nov. 2018 Florida voters approved Amendment 4, ("restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation. The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses").

About Those Non-Voters
Many reasons have been advanced to explain why so many Americans decline to engage in the most basic act of civic participation.

A Pew Research Center analysis of Census data found the top three reasons for not voting in the 2016 presidential election were: dislike of the candidates or campaign issues (25%); not interested or felt their vote would not make a difference (15%); and too busy or a scheduling conflict (14%) (>). 

Attention has focused on making it easier for citizens to register as a way to increase participation.  In 1993 Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (Motor Voter).  According to the Election Administration Commission, at the time of the 2016 election 32.7% of registration applications were done through the Deparment of Motor Vehicles.  However, a report by the Pew Center on the States, Upgrading Democracy (May 2011), suggested there was still  considerable room for improvement in voter registration.  A second Pew report, Inaccurate, Costly and Inefficient (Feb. 2012), found that "approximately 24 million or 1 in 8 registrations are significantly inaccurate or no longer valid."  Further, NVRA has not led to dramatically higher participation.  Groups such as the Brennan Center advocate for Election Day registration and ultimately for universal registration.  According to the NCSL, as of Jan. 2019, 17 states and DC have same day registration (>). 

Individual states have also been implementing measures to make it easier to vote, such as early voting, voting by mail, and liberal absentee ballot rules.  The NCSL reports, as of Jan. 2019, " In 39 states (including 3 that mail ballots to all voters) and the District of Columbia, any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day. No excuse or justification is required (>)."

Why Tuesday?, a non-partisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization founded in 2005, has sought to move federal Election Day from the first Tuesday in November to the first Saturday and Sunday of the month.  Why Tuesday? argues that "our process of voting is based on an outdated 19th century agrarian model that long ago lost its relevance."  Looking to the future, Internet voting is a possibility; this may take root among military and overseas voters, but concerns about security of online voting systems remain. 

Another remedy may be to improve or expand the choices available to voters.  Competitive races create greater interest and boost participation.  Credible third party challenges, notably Ross Perot's candidacy in 1992 and Jesse Ventura's gubernatorial campaign in 1998, have brought high turnout.  A number of states have extremely restrictive ballot access laws, and changes to these laws could introduce additional viewpoints and enliven the debate.  Likewise, different election models such as instant runoff voting and proportional voting rather than winner-take-all in legislative races may help to empower voters.

Finally, the tone of campaigns may also depress turnout.  Poll-driven rhetoric begins to sound the same after a while, thirty-second spots are not a very effective way to conduct a reasoned discourse, and the multitude of attacks likely discourages some people from turning out at the polls.

Register and Vote Efforts
Besides the parties', campaigns' and their allies' efforts to bring out their own supporters, secretaries of state and county election officials sometimes mount campaigns to encourage citizens to register and vote.  Additionally a host of nonpartisan organizations have sought to register voters and raise turnout, often focusing on specific demographic groups.  There are other groups seeking to encourage turnout among youth, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, low income voters and members of the faith community; groups are also concerned about the voting rights of felons who have served their sentences.  National Voter Registration Day, the fourth Tuesday of every September (Sept. 22, 2020) is a noteworthy effort that brings together dozens of partners.  In some cases it does not seem take much to boost participation.  A study by Nonprofit Vote,  which looked at young people who registered to vote or signed a pledge-to-vote card at a group of nonprofits in nine states, found that voter turnout among these "nonprofit voters was 5.7 percentage points higher than turnout among other comparable young voters (+)."

Most of these efforts procede without incident, but in 2008 ACORN attracted considerable noteriety.  For almost forty years ACORN had sought to organize low- and moderate-income communities, but in 2008 there were a number of instances where the group was involved in falsifying voter registrations, and it became a magnet for criticism from Republicans and the right, ultimately filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Nov. 2010.

Efforts of organizations working on civic engagement and voter participation range from 30-second public service announcements (PSAs) that contain slick get-out-the-vote messages to grassroots drives in which people go door-to-door in targeted neighborhoods.  Person to person contact, particularly from family, friends and neighbors is especially effective.  In addition to organizations which encourage people to register and vote, there are "election protection" efforts which seek to counter activities which might intimidate voters or suppress the vote.

Finally, it must be remembered that voting is only a first step, a minimum level of participation.  The real challenge is not just to increase the number of voters, but to ensure citizens are informed about the choices they make.  Groups such as Project Vote Smart and the League of Women Voters as well the news media do work in this area, but there remains room for improvement.