Voter Turnout During Midterm Elections Explained

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.