In Iraq, Afghanistan or countless countries across the globe, citizens walk miles and line up at polling places for hours at considerable physical risk for the privilege of voting. But in the United States people can barely be bothered to make it to a neighborhood polling place. The conventional wisdom says voter turnout has been declining for nearly half a century.
But voting trends may not be a bleak as we are accustomed to thinking. Far from diminishing involvement in elections in the past 40 years, a George Mason University professor says voter participation has actually been steadily climbing for more than a generation. Still, voting isn't steady across the population. On the ground organizers in low-income neighborhoods say getting people to feel they have a role in the political system is a major challenge. And academics who study voter turnout say a few simple changes might dramatically increase participation for all Americans.
Michael McDonald, a George Mason University professor of government and politics discovered that Americans are actually more motivated than they get credit for. He calculates voter turn-out based on the population of eligible voters, not the wider pool of all people over 18 which includes plenty of people who can't vote because they aren't citizens, or because they are incarcerated.
"When you took into consideration those factors, turnout rates for those who were eligible to vote had remained steady since 1972. In fact you could go back all the way to 1908 and see that turnout rates were pretty much steady for the past century,” says McDonald.
Analyzing voter rolls, McDonald found the percentage of eligible voters who cast ballots in presidential and congressional elections has actually been on the rise since a low in 1996. And the level of enthusiasm likely voters report is also increasing.
The election that brought Barack Obama to power had the highest turnout- and the highest turnout among groups like young people and African Americans who often skip elections- in years, McDonald says. That's unlikely to be repeated next week, because mid-term elections always get few voters than presidential contests, he says.
And even given the high turnout in 2008, voter participation varies dramatically between racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
The people who vote tend to be better educated, higher income, they own their own homes, they are whiter, they tend to be older. So we have this skew in our electoral system...And by the way, in a midterm election that skewness is even more pronounced than in a presidential election,” McDonald says. “In states that report their early voting by racial categories and age categories, we are already seeing an electorate along [predictable] lines."
An IAFC analysis of turnout by election district in the November 2008 election found 70 percent of registered voters on the wealthy and white Upper West Side made it to the polls, while only 46 percent of registered voters in the district that covers poorer and largely African-American and Latino Bushwick, Cypress Hills and East New York cast ballots.
Those numbers don't surprise Manuel Burgos, campaign manager for State Assemblyman Darryl Towns, who represents the district.
"In a neighborhood with pervasive poverty, there is a feeling of hopelessness, that things will not get better," he says. An insistent media narrative that the political process is broken and politicians corrupt also depresses turnout, Burgos says.
Active involvement in democracy needs to be taught, Burgos says. So Towns is planning an initiative to register local high school students in their schools in an attempt to engage them in the political process, he says.
AnnaMaria Archila, executive director of Make The Road New York, a community empowerment group that works in Bushwick and other parts of Brooklyn and Queens says low voter turnout is frustrating, because the neighborhoods with the lowest turn out are precisely the ones that need government services.
But people are really disconnected. They don't think the politicians are talking to them. And of course campaigns focus their energy on motivating the already reliable voters, not on reaching out to people who have never been involved in the process,” she says. That's why Make the Road launched an initiative Sunday to get out the vote in the neighborhoods they serve using a door-to-door, neighbor-to-neighbor approach. “People need to feel like their voice is valued, that someone wants them involved. And we've learned that the best people to influence youth behavior is other youth. This is the same thinking. People will be more likely to vote if some who shares their experience, whose life is like theirs says come on out.”
Direct outreach and civics education for young people works, McDonald says. "There have been a couple of studies that have done this. Young people who go through high school civics programs where they are required to do some sort of community service, they tend to vote at higher rates than students who don't do those sort of community service activities,” he says.
Beyond interpersonal approaches, a few simple systemic changes could get more citizens exercising their franchise, says Christopher Malone, political science professor at Pace University.
Shortening the time between deadlines for registering to vote and actual elections would likely bring more people out. Same day registration, which is in effect in New Hampshire and a few other states, would be even better, Malone says. “A lot of people don't tune into elections until the last two weeks, which is usually too late to register,” he says. “Institutional constraints do prevent people from voting.” The Motor-Voter Act of 1993 provided that voter registration forms would be available at many government office people come in contact with, from the DMV to the library. Weekend voting would also make it easier for people to cast a ballot, as would an expansion of early voting or mail-in ballots, in use already in Oregon and other states, voting experts say.
While turn-out tracks closely with education and wealth, even in wealthy areas turnout decreases when races aren't competitive, Malone says. That means turnout will likely remain low in many areas of New York, where the outcome of many races is effectively determined in the primaries.