The 2016 Presidential election has been dubbed by many as a choice between “the lesser of two evils” and many voters are so disenchanted with the entire process that they are threatening to sit out this year. In response to discontent with the available choices, disgust with political corruption, and a feeling that their vote doesn't matter, many Americans question why they should bother to register to vote in the first place.
Voter apathy is not something new in America, but in a USA Today poll taken after the 2012 election, it indicated that the public has become so disillusioned with politics in the U.S that many have stopped even paying attention to politics. In response to the question, “Why don’t you pay much attention to politics?” 59% agreed with the statement, “Nothing ever gets done. It’s a bunch of empty promises.” And 37% agreed with the statement, “It doesn’t make much difference in my life."
Getting to the bottom of the question, “Why don’t more Americans vote?” isn’t as easy at it sounds and there are two primary issues that need to be addressed. Getting more voters registered and getting more registered voters to actually get out and vote.
Measuring Voter Turnout
Haley Smith, with FairVote.org says that one of the challenges we have with measuring voter turnout is determining which measurement we should be using when making any statements about voter turnout. Are we referring to “voting eligible population turnout” or “registered voter turnout”? Smith goes on to say that “without a label associated with turnout, it is quite easy to confuse the level of voter participation and make misleading inferences about our participatory health.”
In fact, out of those that are registered to vote in the United States, 84.3% (7th among OECD countries) voted in the 2012 elections. However, as Smith indicated, when you simply look at one side of the equation, such as registered voter turnout, you are missing a larger part of the story of voter turnout… 46.4% of eligible voters in the U.S. do not vote.
To some degree, this makes a lot of sense. If you take the effort to register to vote and understand the importance of it, there is a better chance you will actually get out and vote. But what about those that are eligible to vote, but don’t register and therefore don’t vote? How do we get them to show more interest in politics and get them out to the polls?
So let’s make sure that for the sake of this article, we understand two of the most commonly used measurements we have for measuring voter turnout (Voting Eligible Population Turnout and Registered Voter Turnout) and then explore how voter apathy is impacting those specific measurements and what we can do to reverse these downward trends in voting participation.
Voting Eligible Population Turnout
Simply put, voting eligible population turnout is the number of people that are eligible to vote, divided by those that actually vote. See the equation below:
In the U.S. we have one of the lower rates of eligible population turnouts among industrialized nations. Out of the number of people eligible to vote in the United States, we rank 31st among the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Part of the reason for the U.S. lagging behind its peers in voting eligible population turnout include the fact that some countries, such as Belgium (87.2%) and Turkey (84.3%), have made voting compulsory and others register their citizens to vote automatically when they become eligible.
While the barrier to registering to vote is not high in the United States, you do have to take it upon yourself to register to vote. This additional step, while not a barrier for most, does create an additional step in the voting process which may lead to lower voting eligible turnout.
Registered Voter Turnout
In order to get a higher voting eligible population turnout rate we first must get more people registered to vote in the United States. Many attempts have been made to increase the number of registered voters in the U.S. and some of the most visible efforts include using celebrities to encourage Americans to register to vote and the Rock the Vote campaign.
When you look at a table of registered voters in this country, based on age, you will see an easily identifiable trend. The younger you are (18 + above), the less likely you are to be registered to vote. This is the principle reason why celebrities and rock stars are being used in voter registration campaigns.
Apathy Discourages Voter Registration
After discussing some of the components behind the voter turnout statistics, it’s important to also discuss the reasons why the numbers are the way they are. Why are Americans not interested in politics and not registering to vote?
When researching information regarding voter apathy and low voter registration, I was able to narrow down the reason why Americans are not interested in registering to vote to 4 main reasons: disgust with the status quo and the polarizing tone of politics, greater complexity in issues, politics as a taboo, and it isn't pertinent to them.
I will concede that there are many more than I highlight here, but in order to be concise, I wanted to focus primarily on these four as I believe they cover the majority of reasons why eligible voters are not registering to vote.
Disgusted with Politics, the Status Quo and Polarization
There are many reasons why Americans have become disillusioned by the political process but the ones most referenced include: political corruption, career politicians, and money in politics. In addition to the feeling that corruption has taken over politics, extreme positions on issues from both the left and the right have made politics less appealing to many eligible voters. The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street etc., make politics too polarizing for most and has become a major turn off for those with moderate positions and beliefs.
We live in a world that is much more complex than ever before. With 24 / 7 news networks and social media constantly bombarding us with the latest “news,” we are being overloaded with more information on a daily basis and it’s become more difficult than ever to take in all of this information and process it. In addition, it's extremely time-consuming to try and understand complex public policy issues and pending legislation and to form an educated opinion.
Politics Has Become Taboo
Politics was once a discussion that was had over beers with friends. But now, we don’t discuss politics at work or at the dinner table and now, many don’t want to discuss politics on social media either. Political conversation and discourse in the U.S. has changed over the years from something we readily discussed in public to something that’s been relegated to “safe areas” so we don’t offend anyone or let our opinions be heard.
It Doesn’t Affect Me
One of the chief reasons why eligible voters fail to register to vote is that they don’t feel their vote counts or that it doesn’t personally affect them. In a USA Today poll, more than 1 in 3 eligible voters stated that they don’t pay attention to politics because it doesn't make much difference in their life.
How To Get More Registered Voters
As indicated above, the first problem that we have in the U.S. with low eligible voter turnout is that the U.S. needs a higher percentage of registered voters, especially youth voters.
A few ways to overcome the reasons why more people are not registering to vote include making every American feel as though their vote matters, the candidates are not corrupt, and the system isn’t rigged against them. A few ways to accomplish this include: enacting term limits, the creation of anti-corruption and financial transparency laws, and striking down Citizens United.
In addition to making Americans feel as though their vote counts and the system isn’t corrupt, another change that is needed is additional voter registration outreach and making it easier to register to vote. While some states have already implemented some of these items, states should allow citizens to register to vote when getting a driver's license, at the post office or government office, and online.
In addition to these state registration methods, the federal government should allow for registering to vote when registering for selective service.
Apathy Discourages Registered Voters from Voting
Assuming the steps that I outlined above can help to increase the number of registered voters, the next step is how to get those that are registered to turn out on election day. Most of these solutions involve removing impediments that discourage registered voters from actually voting, such as creating a federal election holiday or mandating employers allow for time off of work to vote and making online and mail-in voting easier to do.
Create a Federal Election Holiday
In every U.S. election since 1996, the #1 reason registered voters gave for not making it out to the polls was “too busy/couldn’t get time off to vote.” In 2010, 27% of registered voters gave this answer. As a nation, there have been significant sacrifices made to earn the freedom to vote for our own representative government. These sacrifices have been made by our Founding Fathers, by Susan B. Anthony, and by Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to secure voting rights for every man and woman regardless of color.
Now it’s time that we celebrate our American Democracy, the greatest experiment in politics ever undertaken and make election day a federal holiday or at least mandate employers allow time off for voting with no repercussions. Voting on weekends is another option that we should look into if politicians can’t get behind a federal election holiday.
Make it Easier to Vote (Not Harder)
We need to make it easier, not harder for U.S. citizens to vote. With a number of states enacting tougher voter ID laws, there seems to be a movement afoot to make it harder, not easier to vote. While voter fraud isn’t rampant in the United States, new laws that make it harder to cast a vote have been put forward in Texas and other states and have been subsequently struck down. We need to fight against these laws that disenfranchise those that have a right to vote.
Making the voting process easier is something that each state should be working on and allow for early voting, mail-in ballots, and start the transition to online voting.
Changes to Primary Voting
One of the chief complaints from both sides about the Democratic and Republican primaries was that they were closed and didn’t allow those that were not registered with the party to vote in a specific party’s primary. What this has accomplished is providing us with two candidates that a majority of Americans didn't select as their preferred candidate and that they dislike.
Opening up the primaries to independents and those not affiliated with a party will make the candidates that we do choose more representative of a larger percentage of the population and make voters more vested in the candidates they actually voted for.
The Right to Vote
Increasing the number of eligible voters that are registered to vote is the first step to having a more engaged electorate. The second step is removing impediments to voting and getting more registered voters to the polls.
While many Americans may not be satisfied with the choices in the 2016 presidential election, one thing is for sure… we are going to see a higher turnout than the past few elections due to an interest in Trump’s candidacy and for better or worse, the tone the campaigns have taken.
After all, everyone likes to rubber neck at the scene of an accident and we are heading toward one major train wreck during the debates. It might not be pretty to look at… but it is creating some long lost interest in politics again.
So for better or worse… this election cycle might be one of the best in terms of getting an apathetic public interested in politics again and hopefully out to the polls.