Can We Do Better?

Turnout in the 2012 presidential election was 58.2 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 58.2 percent of eligible voters. 

In the 2012 general election four states had turnout of greater than 70 percent of eligible voters: Minnesota (75.7%), Wisconsin (72.5%), Colorado (70.3%) and New Hampshire (70.1%).  However, at the other extreme were Hawaii (44.2%), West Virginia (46.3%), Oklahoma (49.2%) and Texas (49.7%). 

Different demographic groups also turned out at different levels.  A May 2013 Census Bureau report "The Diversifying Electorate—Voting Rates by Race and Hispanic Origin in 2012 (and Other Recent Elections)" (PDFfound that 66.2% of blacks voted, 64.1% of non-Hispanic whites, 48.0% of Hispanics and 47.3% of Asians.

Overall, according to the Census Bureau report, non-Hispanic whites accounted for 71.1% of the eligible electorate, blacks 12.5%, Hispanics 10.8% and Asians 3.8%.  However, because of the different turnout rates, the composition of those voting was somewhat different: 73.7% non-Hispanic whites, 13.4% blacks, 8.4% Hispanics and 2.9% Asians.  A major finding of the report is that "the 2012 voting population expansion came primarily from minority voters."

The Hispanic Vote
The Hispanic vote received particular attention this election cycle.  According to the NALEO Educational Fund, "In 2008, 19.5 million Latinos were eligible to vote, but half did not cast ballots, because they were not registered or did not turn out."  NALEO projected 12.2 million Hispanics would vote in the Nov. 2012 general election compared to 9.7 million in Nov. 2008 (+).  The NALEO projection proved to be high; the Census Bureau report cited above put the total number of votes cast by Hispanics at 11.2 million.  The Pew Hispanic Center noted that, "Hispanics continue to punch below their weight." (+)

Jan R. van Lohuizen of Voter/Consumer Research observes that the Hispanic vote "did not increase uniformly, and most of the increase did not occur in the key swing states." (PDF)  But the big story on the Hispanic vote was the strong support for Obama, 71% to 27% according to the exit polls.  A report by the Pew Hispanic Center states, "Obama's national vote share among Hispanic voters is the highest seen by a Democratic candidate since 1996, when President Bill Clinton won 72% of the Hispanic vote." (PDF van Lohuizen writes, "Republicans have a very significant image problem among Hispanics."

Voter ID Laws
Efforts of a number of states to pass voter ID laws, ostensibly because of concerns about voter fraud, became a significant issue in the months leading up to Nov. 2012 (examples: FL, PA, TX).  The Brennan Center for Justice raised early alarms of a "wave of restrictive laws that could make it harder for up to 5 million Americans to vote," but subsequently pared the number to a still significant 500,000 voters.  Brennan cited "closed offices, long trips without cars and spotty public transit, and prohibitive costs for documents needed to get ID (+).  On Sept. 19, 2012 "groups representing communities of color...declared a 'state of emergency' on voting rights in the U.S. and said that millions of people could be disenfranchised by restrictive voter laws." (+) (see also NCSL: Voter Identification Requirements).

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.

First, many Americans say they are too busy.  A 1998 Census Bureau study found that among those who were registered but did not vote in the 1996 campaign, 21.5 percent said they did not vote "because they could not take time off of work or school or because they were too busy."

Complex voter registration requirements were thought to be one cause deterring people from participating, and in 1993 Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (Motor Voter) to make it easier for people to register.  However, a report by the Pew Center on the States, Upgrading Democracy (May 2011), suggested there is 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.  In an effort to increase voter turnout, individual states have been trying measures to make it easier to vote, such as early voting, voting by mail, and liberal absentee ballot rules.

Groups such as the Brennan Center advocate for Election Day registration and ultimately for universal registration.  Ten states and DC have same day registration for presidential elections. 

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.  Many efforts focus on youth, including  the National Student/Parent Mock Election, Kids Voting USA, the PIRGs' New Voters Project, and Rock The Vote.  There are other groups seeking to encourage turnout among 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, Sept. 25, 2012, was a noteworthy effort that brought together dozens of partners (+).

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.