American Voter Turnout: The Overlooked Crisis Of Our Democracy

Lost amidst the perpetual scandals, ruthless mudslinging, and overall unprecedented nature of the 2016 American Presidential election was the sobering fact that only about 55% of voting age citizens cast their ballots this November- a new 20-year low in the United States. In other words, during perhaps the most ideologically pivotal and divisive election in modern history, only about half of eligible American voters made their voices heard. Poor US voter participation rates are not a new phenomenon; the country’s voting habits have long lagged behind those of other nations. In terms of recent national elections around the globe, the US ranks a dismal 31st place among the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development- most of whose members are highly developed, democratic states. Midterm election participation percentages are even more embarrassing, as the USA’s 2014 turnout rate ranked 113th out of 114 nations that held parliamentary elections between 2004 and 2014. Unfortunately, however, voter turnout rates remain an afterthought amongst the media, government, and American public as a whole. Despite this continued widespread ignorance, the dearth of voting participation in the United States- along with its numerous contributing factors- is an issue that deserves to be addressed.

In essence, paying attention to voter turnout is so important because it is the basic measurement of voting, which is the cornerstone of a representative democracy. Democracy, by definition, is the system of government in which the people govern themselves, usually through elected representatives. As a result, in order for a democracy to function, it is imperative that the public votes for officials to represent their interests in government. Politicians on both sides of the aisle emphasize the significance of voting, with figures from Ted Cruz to Hillary Clinton urging Americans to exercise their “most precious right” in the most recent election. Thus, by measuring voter turnout, the amount of people that are taking part in the most essential process in a democratic government can be determined. If voter turnout is high, that typically means that the public is engaged in their democracy through voting. On the other hand, low turnout signals that a significant amount of people are not engaged with the democratic process. This lack of engagement prevents elections from being true representations of the wants and needs of the American public, as hundreds of millions of eligible Americans are not making their voices heard when it comes time to vote.

Much of the low voter participation rates that plague America’s democracy can be traced to highly unnecessary legislation that heighten the barriers to casting a ballot. To begin with, with the exception of North Dakota, every state in America requires its residents to register before voting. This is a fairly unusual obstacle to voting, especially amongst developed democracies. In most countries, rather than placing the burden on the public, the government takes the lead by either automatically registering individuals once they become eligible or by aggressively seeking out and registering eligible voters. However, in the United States, the burden of registration is placed upon the citizen- adding an extra cost to the act of voting. This extra cost clearly plays a role in reducing voter turnout in the United States. Only about 65% of the US voting-age population is registered to vote, rendering an astounding 35% of the public ineligible to vote unless they take it upon themselves to get registered. Moreover, additional research has shown that reducing the burden of self-registration, such as instituting same-day registration, increases state-level voter turnout by a significant margin of 5%.

Closely tied to the factor of voter registration in depressing turnout is the prevalence of voter identification laws in the United States. Now enacted in some form in 36 states, voter ID laws generally require citizens to show a type of identification in order to vote. A relatively new phenomenon in the United States, these laws were not even in existence prior to in 2006, when Indiana became the first state to pass them. Multiple studies have recorded the negative effects that voter ID requirements have on voter participation; during the 2014 midterm elections, the Government Accountability Office discovered that states with strict voter ID laws experienced turnout drops of about 2-3% compared to states without the laws. Furthermore, in a study comparing turnout rates during the period of 2002 to 2006, researchers at Harvard University found that photo and non-photo ID laws were responsible for decreasing overall turnout by 1.6-2.2% points. The same study estimated that voter ID requirements disenfranchised between 3 and 4.5 million American voters during the same time period.

With regards to the point that both voter registration and voter identification laws are entirely gratuitous, it first must be made clear that these laws are ostensibly put in place to prevent “voter fraud” from occurring. For example, the 2011 Texas voter ID legislation that requires voters to present photo identification when casting their ballot was passed under the guise of preventing individuals from impersonating eligible voters at the polls. The stated goal is similar for all states who have sought to pass strict ID or registration laws: stop voter fraud. Yet, despite this shared line of reasoning, the fact of the matter is that voter fraud is incredibly rare. In fact, prior to the 2016 election, there were exactly 31 total cases of voter fraud recorded in the United States. For the 2016 election itself, a study conducted by the Washington Post found that just four cases of voter fraud were documented. Clearly, although identification and registration laws are purportedly meant to prevent voter fraud, they mostly affect the elderly, the poor, and minorities in America- the groups that are least likely to possess the required identification. In other words, these laws are targeted at groups of Americans who will damage the ruling party of the state’s chances at winning elections.

The massive presence of felon disenfranchisement in the country stands out as another main contributing factor to low voter participation in the United States. Currently, 48 out of the 50 states bar felons from voting in elections, with an additional 12 states banning ex-felons from participation in the voting process. Research has estimated that approximately six million Americans are prevented from voting due to felon disenfranchisement laws, an incredibly high number of ineligible people that inevitably puts a dent in turnout rates. Additionally, these laws affect minorities quite disproportionately, with nearly one in ten African-American men unable to vote due to state felony laws. One study even found that, by excluding black men who are not currently in prison but are still barred from voting, turnout figures for African-American men in the United States increased from roughly 61 percent to 68 percent. This measurement points back to the theme that much of the legislation contributing to the lack of voter participation is unnecessarily severe, as millions of Americans (mostly belonging to minority groups) are sent to prison each year due to the country’s harsh drug laws and disproportionate sentencing– and lose their right to vote as a result.

There are many other causes of the scarcity of voter turnout in the United States, including the fact that Election Day takes place on a workday, the lack of compulsory voting laws, and the low levels of electoral competitiveness across different levels of the US government. Yet, it is ultimately incontestable the lack of voter participation in the United States can largely be traced back to legislation that disproportionately affects minority groups within the country- whether through the interconnected system of voter ID and registration laws or the widespread epidemic of felon disenfranchisement.

"…in order for a democracy to function, it is imperative that the public votes for officials to represent their interests in government."

Concurrently, it is also clear that these same unjust laws are continuously permitted to be passed due to the alarming absence of public outcry. Indeed, if the American people actively fought back against the legislation that strips millions of their voter rights, it would be much more difficult for government officials to stand by these laws. This idea, that the people can directly affect policy, has been proven time and time again throughout American history. Most recently, the LGBT rights social movement of the 2000s and 2010s has brought about tangible change to legislation- including the repealment of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2011 and the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage in 2015.

In order for voter registration, voter ID, and voter disenfranchisement laws to change, the American people must put pressure on the government in the form of a social movement. This may sound like a far-fetched proposal, but, now more than ever, the United States is a hotbed for sweeping social movements. The past few years have seen the ascent of both the LGBT equality and Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the recent spate of massive public protests and rallies in reaction to the highly controversial and contentious election of Donald Trump as President. To say the least, a movement to restore the voting rights of a large sector of the US population would not fall out of place with the zeitgeist of today’s America. Otherwise, the reality is that voter participation will continue to shrink, thereby undermining the foundation of America’s democracy.

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About the Author

Brendan Pierce '20 is the Section Manager for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Brendan can be reached at brendan_pierce@brown.edu

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