Even before the first primaries for the 2018 midterm elections were held back in March, pundits began speculating on whether we’d see a “blue wave” or a “red tide” in November. For either eventuality we first need voters to go to the polls. It’s no secret that voter apathy is a common affliction in the U.S. Only 58% of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. Think that’s bad? Only 18% showed up across the state of Pennsylvania for the 2018 May primaries. In fact, if “Did Not Vote” were a candidate in 2016, it would have won by a landslide.
It’s typical to have 40% of people not voting in presidential election years and 60% in midterms, which means a small percentage of voters are determining who our elected officials will be. That doesn’t sit well with me and should be of concern for everyone. Naturally, it prompts one to ask what’s behind these disheartening statistics. It turns out there are a number of factors. If you ask people directly they’ll say it’s because they don’t trust the outcomes of elections, don’t like the candidates, or don’t think their votes make a difference.
During a recent broadcast of The Takeaway entitled, “Why Don’t More Americans Vote?” Barry Burden, professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and director of the Elections Research Center, took a more scientific approach. Burden believes that one of the best predictors of whether a person will vote is their age. He says the likelihood of a person voting goes up about one percentage point each year. For example, 30% of 30 year olds and 60% of 60 year olds would be likely to vote in a presidential election year. Burden also noted other dynamics that increase the chances a person will vote, such as being a regular voter to begin with, having established a habit of voting, and being rooted to a community and place.
But all of those factors are something that takes the will and the effort of the individual. What else can we do as a society to get more people involved in the democratic process? One thing that many countries around the world have put in place is compulsory voting and enforcing that mandate with fines. Australia, for example, has compulsory voting and one of the most successful voter turnout rates in the world, sometimes as high as 95%. Unfortunately compulsory voting probably wouldn’t fly in the U.S. As a culture, most Americans don’t like being told what to do by government, but more importantly such legislation would likely be unconstitutional.
That’s not to say that government can’t or shouldn’t play a role in helping to increase the number of people casting votes. Burden points out several actions that have proven to do just that. He says the one thing that consistently gets more people out is election day registration, where people are allowed to register and vote on the spot. It’s particularly helpful for people who have changed their names or address and for young people who tend to move more frequently. Election day registration increases overall turnout by a few points, but in young people it creates a double-digit increase, according to Burden.
Another way to boost turnout, which states like Oregon and Washington and most developed nations across the globe have already put in place, is automatic registration. This puts government in charge of putting people on the roles. In the U.S., states already have much of the needed data from state DMV’s. In Washington and Oregon, when you get a license you have to opt out of being registered. You are later mailed a card with which you can choose a party affiliation.
Breaking down barriers to voting is a common thread in the success of the measures mentioned above. One formidable obstacle can simply be the norms of the social environment in which a person grows up. If voting isn’t something that’s been done in an individual’s family or peer group, that person is less likely to vote themselves. The good news is that peer pressure can work and when people are mobilized, voting can be contagious. David Nickerson, Associate Professor of Political Science at Temple University, conducted an experiment involving canvassing voters. He found that when knocking doors and contact is made with a resident, the increase in turnout was 8 to 10 points higher in people who had some interaction with a canvasser. Interestingly the effect seems to transfer to others in the household with whom the canvasser doesn’t speak. Nickerson found turnout was 6 points higher in that group. Nickerson says there is evidence that this works in other social networks like Facebook or Twitter. The trick, he says, is to apply the pressure on people within your own social network.
“Voting is not an individual act. It is a communal act,” says Esther de Rothschild. de Rothschild is one of the founders of The Love Vote, a site where people who can’t vote due to youth or immigration status gather pledges to vote from people who can. After you promise to vote, you can choose to receive text messages and reminders. On the site the disenfranchised share their stories and explain what the right to vote means to them. The stories are very emotional and motivating. As de Rothschild says, “If we realize someone is counting on us, we’ll show up.”
Let’s make sure our friends and neighbors know we’re counting on them.
posted by Amy Levengood