According to a Census Bureau report, about 64% of the US voting-age population (and 70% of voting-age citizens) were registered in 2016. Nearly 56% of the US voting-age population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election, a slight increase compared with 2012 but less than in the record year of 2008. It also means that 92 million eligible Americans did not vote in the 2016 presidential election.
The United States has a voter-turnout problem. Participation in presidential elections has typically been about 50–65 percent of eligible voters, and in midterm elections has averaged between 25 and 45 percent. In state and local elections it is usually lower, sometimes in the single digits. Voter turnout in the United States trails that of most other developed democracies.
Low voter turnout is not only a problem of numbers; it skews politics and policy toward the interests of certain groups, such as whites, older Americans, the affluent, and those with more education, and results in a elected officials who are not representative of the broader population of American citizens.
In recent elections, voter turnout rates for women have equaled or exceeded those for men. Among younger citizens (18–64), more women than men voted in the last six elections. While the difference in voter turnout between the sexes is greatest for blacks, women have voted at higher rates than men among blacks, Hispanics, and whites in the last eight presidential elections.
Motivating more voters to participate in elections is difficult. Governments can’t instill voters with enthusiasm, but they can make it easier for them to find information and they can remove barriers to voting. While many stories focus on those states that are instituting practices that make voting more difficult, there are states, cities and organizations that have begun institutional reforms to make voting easier, as Denver has proved.
Coloradans have a history of being enthusiastic voters, and in November 2016 Denver set a personal best: 72 percent of those registered voted—much more than in most major cities. (The percentage for Denver was 67 in 2008, and 63 in 2012.)
How did they do it? Denver mailed a ballot to every registered voter, which they could fill out at home and mail in or bring to a dropbox. Voting at home was popular and 92 percent of voters chose to do it. Those who chose to go to a polling place could do so anywhere in the city, near homes or the workplace. And people could register and vote on the same day, while voter registration changed automatically when those who moved updated their driver’s license.
New this year in many colleges across the country is a renewed effort to get information about elections, and absentee ballots into the hands of students, especially freshmen. Students can use TurboVote app, run by the non partisan organization Democracy Works. There is also a national campaign to encourage student participation ins elections called All In Campus Democracy Challenge, an initiative of the nonprofit Civic Nation.
To drive voter participation and make voting more convenient for eligible Americans, americanprogress.org has the following recommendations:
Streamline voter registration with automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration (SDR), preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds, and online voter registration
Make voting more convenient with in-person early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and vote-at-home with vote centers
Provide sufficient resources in elections to ensure that voting is accessible
Restore rights for formerly incarcerated people
Strengthen civics education in schools
Invest in integrated voter engagement (IVE) and outreach (IVE groups combine issue advocacy and organizing with voter mobilization to effect change within the communities they serve.)
While the mechanics of implementing some or all of these recommendations at the state level takes time and effort, NCJW could concentrate efforts in two areas—civics education and integrated voter engagement. Our proven track record of outreach to schools makes advocating for a strong civics education a natural focus. Advocacy for issues important to women, children and families is fundamental to all we do and could be part of an integrated voter engagement program. Connecting issues to people’s lives, demystifying government and helping people understand the electoral process, and inviting them to participate could help to expand the electorate and elect representatives that are more responsive to the American population.
We know what needs to be done for our state and community. This is the time to roll up our sleeves and get to it.
—Lesley Frost, Advocacy Chair
Sources: americanprogress.org has a detailed examination of policies to increase voter participation; www.newyorker.com, npr.org, washington post, fortune.com, cawp.rutgers.edu, pewresearch.org, thenation.com, governing.com, nytimes.com