Does Higher Voter Participation Really Matter?
One of the great contradictions of American politics is the fact that our elections—the hallmark of democracy—are plagued by low, and declining, voter turnout. From a high point of about 65 percent turnout in 1960 to a seven-decade low of 49 percent in the 1996 presidential election, Americans are staying away from the polls in record numbers. By comparison, voter turnout in virtually every other democratic nation of the world is significantly higher, typically in the range of 70 to 90 percent in their comparable national elections. But is America’s low voter turnout anything to worry about?
Yes, say many. Part of the problem lies in the tangle of rules that regulate voting, which are more complicated than those found in almost any other nation. Most of these rules were enacted decades ago to discourage “undesirables”—African Americans, immigrants, the poor—from voting. In many nations, voting is easier because citizens are automatically registered to vote and do not have to worry about local residency requirements, and elections are held on the weekends. A government that cares about its elections should certainly do more to make the act of voting easier. Turnout matters to campaigns, because those who run for office tailor their campaign issues and strategies to those who are likely to vote. Thus, the needs and concerns of the nonvoters—generally those with lower incomes and less education, and members of disadvantaged groups—are likely to be ignored, with the result that policy fails to address the nation’s most pressing needs.
In recent years, states have made voting easier. As of 2012, thirty-five states allowed some form of early voting. Oregon allows all voters to cast their ballots by mail. Other states allow voters to register at the polls on the day of the election. These changes demonstrate that the government could do more to make voting easier, and should do so, many argue, because the ever-declining percentage of voting casts a shadow over the very legitimacy of the government that is elected. How can a president, or other elected leaders, claim a mandate to govern when fewer than a quarter of eligible voters cast ballots for the winner?
Skeptics counter these arguments by asserting that the negative consequences of nonvoting have been greatly overstated. In 1993, Congress passed the “Motor Voter” law, which allowed citizens to register to vote when they applied for a driver’s license. Even though millions of new voters registered by this means, it had little or no effect on voting rates, suggesting that existing election laws may have little to do with voting rates. Further, research has demonstrated that there is often less difference between voters and nonvoters than many assume. A study of the 1988 election, for example, showed that, contrary to expectations, nonvoters would have supported the winning presidential candidate, George H. W. Bush, over the challenger, Michael Dukakis. This and similar research supports the idea that the interests of nonvoters are not so different from those of voters. Beyond this, nonvoting is not necessarily a sign of alienation from the political system. To some extent, at least, it can be interpreted as citizen satisfaction with the overall course of the country’s affairs. Although indifference is a less than noble sentiment, it can at least be taken as a green light for the nation’s political leaders. When crises have arisen in the past, from the Great Depression to the September 11 terrorist attacks, Americans have turned close attention to their political leaders. Finally, voting is only one method of political expression, and citizens with concerns ranging from race to abortion to gun control increasingly express their views through means other than the ballot box, from interest-group activity to the Internet. Voting is still the most frequent political activity, but citizens are free to express themselves in an ever-wider array of methods.