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Voters and Non-Voters: Can We Do Better? 

With the exception of the elections of 1982, 1992 and 1994, turnout has essentially been declining since the mid-1960's in both Presidential and mid-term elections.  --Curtis Gans, Committee for the Study of the American Electorate
Turnout in the 1996 presidential election sank to 49.5 percent of the voting age population, the lowest level in decades.  Likewise turnout in the 1998 mid-term elections was about 36.1 percent, the lowest level since 1942.  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.

Remedies to the voter turnout problem may lie beyond the reach of simple pieces of legislation, however.  An August 1998 Center for Voting and Democracy report "Monopoly Politics" predicted 317 of the 435 House races would be uncontested, landslide wins or comfortable wins.  It is an astounding fact that at least 94 House incumbents did not face a major party challenger in November 1998.  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. 

Another possible explanation for low voter turnout is the way politics is conducted today--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.

Besides the parties' 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) done by groups such as Rock The Vote that contain slick get-out-the-vote messages to grassroots drives in which people go door-to-door in targetted neighborhoods. 

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 Voting Age Population (VAP) Total Vote % VAP Voted
2000 205,815,000 105,399,313 51.2
1996 196,507,000 96,277,634 49.8
1992 182,628,000 104,428,377 55.2
1988 182,628,000 91,594,805 50.1
1984 164,595,000 92,653,000 53.1
1980 164,595,000 86,497,000 52.6
1976 152,308,000 81,603,000 53.5
1972 140,777,000 77,625,000 55.2
Source: Committee for the Study of the American Electorate

Broad Overview of the Electorate
Census Bureau Facts (Oct. 23, 2000 release)
Census Bureau Projections of Voting Age Population (July 31, 2000 release)
Youth Vote 2000 ""Getting Out the Youth Vote: Results from Randomized Field Experiments" (June 12, 2001)
Third Millennium's "Neglection 2000"
Kennedy School's "The Vanishing Voter Project"
National Election Studies NES "Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior"
Committee for the Study of the American Electorate
Federal Election Commission's "About Elections and Voting"
Census Bureau Report "Voting and Registration in the Election of November 1996"
Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers
Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies "The Black Vote in '98"
National Association of Secretaries of State's New Millennium Project (Youth Attitudes)

Register and Vote!   photos
Project Vote Smart
Democracy Network
Web White & Blue
League of Women Voters
Rock The Vote
Southwest Voter Registration Education Project
Latino Vota 2000
National Coalition on Black Civic Participation
Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote 2000
People of Faith 2000
AARP/VOTE
National Organization on Disability: N.O.D. VOTE! 2000
Democracy in Practice: NH Youth Voter Alliance
Youth Vote 2000
Campus Green Vote
National Student/Parent Mock Election
Kids Voting USA
The National Coalition for the Homeless' Voting Rights Campaign
Federal Voting Assistance Program

Making It Easier to Vote

  • Voting by Mail/Absentee--Examples

  • Oregon--Vote by Mail | Stats
    Texas--Early Voting
    California--Increasing Use of Absentee Ballots
  • Weekend Voting

  • A Bill Introduced in the 105th Congress
  • Registration

  • Minnesota--Election Day Registration
    North Dakota--No Registration
  • The National Voter Registration Act of 1993--"Motor Votor"

  • FEC's Report to Congress, June 1997
    Human SERVE's 1996 Report
    National Center for Policy Analysis--on voting

    Increasing Competition and Quality
    Ballot Access News
    Center for Responsive Politics
    Center for Voting and Democracy
    Alliance for Better Campaigns

    Polls: Snapshots of the Electorate
    washingtonpost.com's Data Directory
     

    Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.