|Turnout in the 2008 presidential election was 61.7 percent of eligible voters. There are still significant numbers of nonvoters. America claims to be "the world's greatest democracy" so the question must be asked, can we do better?|
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|Voters and Non-Voters: Can We
The campaigns, parties, aligned organizations, and organizations targeting specific demographic groups all work to encourage people to vote. The debacle of Florida in 2000 reminded voters that voting can indeed make a difference. 2004 saw the highest turnout since 1968, with 60.7 percent of eligible citizens voting according to the United States Election Project at George Mason University. 2008 surpassed 2004 as 61.7 percent of elegible voters turned out. Four states had turnout of greater than 70 percent of eligible voters: Minnesota (78.2%), Wisconsin (72.5%), Maine (71.4%) and New Hampshire (71.3%); at the other extreme were Hawaii (50.5%), West Virginia (50.6%) and Arkansas (53.4%).
There are still a large number of non-voters. Many reasons have been advanced to explain why so many Americans decline to engage in the most basic act of civic participation.
First, many Americans say they are too busy. A 1998 Census Bureau study found that among those who were registered but did not vote in the 1996 campaign, 21.5 percent said they did not vote "because they could not take time off of work or school or because they were too busy."
Complex voter registration requirements were thought to be one cause deterring people from participating, and in 1993 Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (Motor Voter) to make it easier for people to register. However, simplifying registration has not improved the voting picture.
In an effort to address the voter turnout problem, individual states have been trying measures to make it easier to vote, such as early voting, voting by mail, and liberal absentee ballot rules. Some observers have suggested that weekend voting be implemented nationally. Why Tuesday?, a 501(c)(3) organization, formed in 2005 to advance weekend voting and was active during the 2008 cycle.
Another remedy may be to improve or expand the choices available to voters. Competitive races create greater interest and boost participation. Credible third party challenges, notably Ross Perot's candidacy in 1992 and Jesse Ventura's gubernatorial campaign in 1998, have brought high turnout. A number of states have extremely restrictive ballot access laws, and changes to these laws could introduce additional viewpoints and enliven the debate. Likewise, different election models such as instant runoff voting and proportional voting rather than winner-take-all in legislative races may help to empower voters.
Another possible explanation for low voter turnout is the the tone of campaigns. Poll-driven rhetoric begins to sound the same after a while, thirty-second spots are not a very effective way to conduct a reasoned discourse, and attacks are not likely to encourage people to turn out at the polls.
Early in the 2008 cycle a couple of efforts emerged to engage citizens in ways that went beyond traditional Democrat/Republican politics. Unity08, launched in May 2006, sought to hold "the first-ever online primary to pick a bipartisan Unity Ticket." Additionally, in June 2007 a number of groups started work to hold a "National Presidential Caucus" on December 7, 2007. Organizers envisaged "thousands of local, self-organized, web-enabled, and face-to-face gatherings across the country" in an event that is "part mass straw poll, part mass focus group" and "will advance discussion and deliberation on the issues and candidates." Neither of these efforts was successful however. (1, 2)
There are many groups seeking to turn out voters. Besides the parties' and campaigns' efforts to bring out their own supporters, a host of nonpartisan groups have sought to raise the turnout of voters. Efforts range from 30-second public service announcements (PSAs) that contain slick get-out-the-vote messages to grassroots drives in which people go door-to-door in targeted neighborhoods. Person to person contact, particularly from family, friends and neighbors is especially effective. In 2008, ACORN, which seeks to register voters in low- and moderate-income communities, achieved considerable noteriety for a number of examples of voter registration fraud, but these incidents should not tar the work of dozens of other groups.
Finally, it must be remembered that voting is only a first step, a minimum level of participation. The real challenge is not just to increase the number of voters, but to ensure citizens are informed about the choices they make.
Voter Turnout in Recent Presidential Elections
|Year||Eligible to Vote||Total Vote||% Eligible Voted|
Project Vote Smart
League of Women Voters
Federal Voting Assistance Program
Southwest Voter Registration Education Project +
National Coalition on Black Civic Participation +
National Congress of American Indians' Native Vote +
New Voters Project +
Rock The Vote
National Student/Parent Mock Election
Kids Voting USA +
Women's Voices, Women Vote
The National Coalition for the Homeless' You Don't Need a Home to Vote
Overviews of the Electorate
Overviews of the Electorate
Making It Easier to Vote
FEC's Report "The Impact of the National Voter Registration Act on Federal Elections 1999-2000"
See also: Election Reform
|Copyright © 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action||