Voter Turnout During Midterm Elections Explained

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The 2008 election saw voters come out in record numbers. But next week’s election is expected to draw far fewer people to the polls, perhaps signaling a return to the lackluster turnout we’ve seen for years. It’s a Free Country, WNYC’s dedicated election Web site, has been looking at the nitty-gritty of voter participation. Reporter Eileen Markey joins Amy Eddings for a discussion about voter turnout.

It’s been understood that voter participation has been on the decline for years. By and large Americans just aren’t terribly involved in their democracy. But your reporting found that may not actually be the case. Why not?

I spoke to Michael McDonald, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. He’s a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and his work shows we’ve got the numbers all wrong. He analyzed turn out as a percentage of eligible voters, not merely as a percentage of people of voting age. Looking at turnout as a fraction of everyone in the country over the age of 18 gives you an inaccurately low number, McDonald says, because there are plenty of people who can’t vote because they aren’t citizens, or because they are incarcerated, for example. Those two populations have been growing, just as voter turnout has allegedly been dropping off.

"Once you took into account those factors, turnout rates for those who are eligible to vote had remained steady since 1972," McDonald says. "In fact, you could go all the way back to 1908, and see that turnout rates were pretty much steady for the last century."   

Voter turnout is always somewhere between 50 and 60 percent, he says. It’s been creeping up in the past 20 years and then in 2008, we were all the way up to 61.8 percent. But McDonald says don’t expect that level of involvement next week.

Why not? Are people turned off?

Mid-term elections always attract less attention than presidential races. And the young people and people of color who turned out in record numbers in 2008 were an aberration, political scientists say. McDonald and plenty of other political scientists I spoke with say the people most likely to vote in any election are whiter, richer, better educated and older than the country as a whole. It’s a really skewed electorate, and mid-term elections are even more skewed in that regard. McDonald says this is something we in the media often get wrong when we try to figure out the reason for things.

"A good example of this is looking at disappointed Obama voters. Young people weren't going to vote anyway in mid-term elections," he said. "The surprising thing would be if they actually do show up to vote. Then that would be quite remarkable."

While McDonald’s research shows voting is about steady over the past hundred years, it’s not steady across the board.

So why this unbalanced electorate? Why don’t younger people, or people of color, or people who make less money, vote in greater numbers?

That’s something that has always puzzled me. You look at turnout rates — even in the Obama election — in neighborhoods that you’d think would have the greatest need for government services and the greatest interest in influencing how society operates, and turnout is just terrible. People who work on this say there are a variety of reasons people don’t come to the polls. Some are personal and some are institutional.

Since a lot of people tend to tune into an election just in the last two weeks, we could increase voter turn out if we had same day registration. In states that have it, like New Hampshire and Minnesota, turnout is five to seven percent higher.

Or we could shift responsibility for maintaining registration away from the individual to the government. This is how it’s done in some European countries. Here, every time you move, you have to fix your registration, and poor people tend to move a lot.

There are also things like mail-in voting, or weekend voting, that might make it easier for people working multiple jobs to get involved.

But really, how hard can it be to get out and vote? The polls are open from 6 in the morning until 9 at night.

Right. A big barrier appears to be psychological. People who are poorer, people in communities of color, are more likely to believe that their vote doesn’t matter. Or they’ve never developed the habit of participation. They think the process is for someone else. At Make the Road New York, an activist group that works in Brooklyn and Queens, in some really low-voting neighborhoods, Executive Director Anna Maria Archila says people almost need to be invited to vote. So that organization launched a campaign this weekend where they are doing just that: neighbors are knocking on neighbors doors and saying look, we are the people who get to decide what happens in our community. We’ve got power, if we use it. Archila says that sort of person-to-person outreach is what really counts.


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Comments [3]

JustAGirl from somewhere

This is a very poorly written, insulting article. And yes, I understand that when you wrote "Young people weren't going to vote anyway in mid-term elections..." you meant "young blacks." So what exactly do you think is going to happen if a high percentage of people DO start voting? What, America is going to deviate from its pathway to heck?!? Its going to become better? Uh, I doubt it, because we will still be voting for the same fakes and idiots. That's not going to change.
And also, people are always saying "its a free country" That phrase does not only apply to voting, its a FREE COUNTRY so people don't HAVE to vote if they don't want to.
I am 19, and I really don't see the point in voting. In theory, I do, but what the HECK is the point in me taking part in this crap when in the end, nobody is going to be happy? There will always be people, such as yourself, complaining. So why should I take part in this mess and corruption?
When you can answer THAT question, then maybe I will consider it.
And yes, I am a black woman. I did not grow up in a poorer neighborhood and I definitely do not think my vote doesn't count. Actually I know all too well how powerful my little vote will be, being the "black vote," and all, yet another thing that discourages me from voting.
I know a lot of you political people will shove crap down my throat, guess what? That still isn't going to make me vote, that ESPECIALLY isn't going to make me vote any faster.
And no, it doesn't mean I don't love my country, if I didn't I wouldn't care at all now would I?

Nov. 24 2010 12:03 PM
Oscar M from ny

This article is so insulting and racist ..who told us? who believes that voting makes a difference?,. it might appropriate with money and propaganda but i feel that in this twenty first century we still believe that we need to get disciplined as a tribe by the so called "elites"

Oct. 28 2010 08:21 PM
one from New Mexico

Super article. Additionally, people who are bi or multi-lingual need to be recruited to speak in communities where English is not the first language. Recruitment of artists to spread the vote message visually is also good (such as what Haiti is doing to prevent the spread of cholera). Just some other ideas...

Oct. 28 2010 05:27 PM

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