In my last blog post (Voting as a Social Connection) we walked back through the major voting rights changes in the United States since its founding. Clearly in each “era” of our history more and more people have gained the right to vote in our country, so why don’t more people vote?
Don’t we all feel a personal responsibility to participate in our system to both impact the outcome AND legitimize the process?
This is a huge and complex problem, but it is also a problem that has been studied and a panoply of causes of non-participation have been identified. Let’s review some high-level statistics and a few major reasons eligible citizens don’t vote.
In our best recent years participation in our elections has been at about 56% of eligible voters. This is largely representative of presidential elections and dips to 36% during midterms. Pretty dismal. I am sure we could do better.
Remember the increase in the population of eligible voters, especially in the 20th century, from all the legal changes that expanded voting rights? Unfortunately, after the late 1890’s the percentage of eligible voters participating in elections consistently worked downwards to where it is now, but was at nearly 80% prior to that time. More people attained the right to vote, but many of them and/or others are not consistently choosing to participate. What gives?
Ballot/Primary Access – Even our first President didn’t speak too highly of political parties in his farewell address, so why do we have them, and why are only two typically in play in national elections? Power and control. Between vote % counts needed to even have ballot access and closed primaries to independent/unaffiliated voters, if you don’t typically vote red or blue you often can’t vote or don’t have anyone to vote for. It is hard to feel a responsibility to vote when there are no options that reflect your affiliation and ideas. Inviting more platforms and parties to also participate in debates and providing them with the same national visibility would definitely help engage more voters.
ID Challenges – 21 million Americans don’t have a government issued photo ID. Accept that this is currently true. Accept that the reasons why are some of the same reasons why many functions of every day society we take for granted are not universally available to everyone. In states where such an ID is required to vote, a barrier is erected. Recent legal challenges to new voter ID laws have expressed concerns about these laws being much more of a modern voter suppression technique rather than trying to prevent fraud that has consistently been found NOT to exist. It is hard to make good on your responsibility to vote when the establishment prevents you from doing so. Felons in some states can make this argument as well.
Voter Registration & Process Red Tape – The voter registration process, deadlines and frequent de-coupling from actual voting varies from state to state. This creates a confusing process that is often not well documented so getting it wrong can be easier than getting it right. Responsibilities are often complex and require considerable effort to uphold, but I bet we can do better. States with same day registration consistently record higher voter turnout.
Electoral Integrity – Some people feel their vote doesn’t count. When it comes to Presidential Elections and the Electoral College it is hard to argue that there isn’t a problem. Electoral Votes don’t count the same by population/state in this country, and the entire process easily heads into dispute when the electoral outcome is so badly mismatched to the popular vote as it was in 2016. Three million votes different! The integrity of the process and the idea that a person’s “vote doesn’t count” is a disincentive to people to participate, so some don’t. And in states that have lower electoral integrity (a multi-vector assessment, Washington Post) voter turnout also lags. How can we expect people to vote if we can’t provide more of a guarantee that their effort is worthwhile?
Well, this problem has a problem. We need more people to participate in the process so we can make and keep meaningful changes to that process so that it better benefits all of us. In some cases those changes must come first so that we can give voting access to people who we wish to join us. On others, we need to make changes that increase options and diversity within our process so that more voices can be heard. Much of this will require voting for new leaders who recognize the challenges and benefits of change to our process.
This is why we are Making Good Trouble and helping Rock The Vote this year. If we can help get more voters engaged, registered and out to vote we feel it keeps us moving in the direction we all want to go.
Will you help us?
Are you registered to vote? Do you have your voting plan set?