The US: the real 47 per cent

There is another 47% - Americans who do not vote in Presidential elections.  Is America the only democracy that does not help its people vote?

When a leaked video of Mitt Romney disparaging and discounting 47 percent of the electorate became infamous overnight, pundits and talking heads were shocked at his ability to discount almost half of America’s citizenry. 

But there is another 47 percent of the electorate that politicians routinely write off without much risk: since 1980, on average, 47.1 percent of the population has not voted in Presidential elections.  Indeed, non-voters in off-year elections is even higher, at 62.5 percent.

America’s rates are lower than those in most countries we like to compare ourselves to.  66 percent of those eligible vote in the United Kingdom.  Participation hits 75 percent in the Netherlands, 87 percent in Denmark, and a whopping 93 in Australia. 

Why are we Americans so far behind?

America’s low voter rates are often bemoaned as a sign of apathy, but just how easy is it to register and then vote?  Should voters have to go out of their way to register?  Measures that would make voting easier such as election day registration and the so-called “Motor Voter” laws, which register citizens to vote at the same time as they apply for a driver’s license -- have encountered significant opposition.

Thirty states have laws, most of which were passed in the last few years, that require state-issued identity cards to vote, despite the fact that scholars and observers say specific incidents of voter fraud are minimal.

My own short relationship with the ballot box has been fraught.

It started in my first weeks of college when I was forced to drive six hours to vote in the gubernatorial race.  I made the trip the following fall in for the Senate race, owing to a ruling by our local electoral board that students who lived in dormitories in Virginia were ineligible to register to vote. 

I was one of thousands of students in our hamlet of Williamsburg, VA that were not allowed to register to vote in the town until fall 2007, when a new voter registrar reversed the policy of the previous registrar after he’d been ousted for embezzlement of public funds.  

In the 2008 presidential elections, our precinct had the second highest voter turnout in the state.  But we were lucky.  Numerous students from the historically black Norfolk State University who lived in dorms had their registration applications turned down.  Non-governmental organizations focused on voter protection were not allowed to see the rejected applications and the reasons they were turned down, even after they sued in Virginia court. 

Until August 2009, the state of Virginia did not have one standard policy regarding whether or not students could register to vote if they lived in dormitories, rather, it was left to each of the 134 electoral boards to decide on their own. 

Since my graduation I’ve had to jump through hoops to make sure my registration is current, pay to update my driver’s license with a new address, and wade through an unwieldy website to find out where I need to vote.

And I am not alone.

“We are the only democracy that does not help people vote,” says Richard Briffault, an election law professor at Columbia University Law School.  He points to Canada’s practice of automatically registering voters during the census and other states like Belgium that fine citizens for not voting. 

He says that the new restrictions on voter identification complicate what is already an unwieldy process for many eligible voters:

“Many states now require a voter ID, but they don’t provide it.  In some states you can get one for free, but in others it can be quite costly.”

Eleven percent of the population lacks a driver’s license or other form of identification required by the states with the most stringent rules, according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, and the rate for African Americans is double that.

Another reason why turnout is so low, says Jessica Trounstine, a professor of political science at University of California-Merced who studies voting habits, is the fact that we have more elections: 80 percent of races are not held concurrently with general or statewide elections. 

“That is the biggest depressor of turnout,” says Trounstine, and it is exacerbated by a lack of voter information: 45 states are not legally required to inform citizens about planned elections and registration deadlines, and some receive scant media attention.

In 1792, Congress passed a law determining that federal electors would meet in December, and that elections had to be held within a 34-day period before then. 

Until the mid to late 1800s, the electoral process was controlled by political parties, who registered voters and then printed and disseminated the ballots.

Then it was slowly taken over by state governments in the second half of the twentieth century in piecemeal, patchwork fashion resulting in great discrepancies across the country, and even within states, regarding registration and the conduct of elections that persists today.

In 1845, with faster information and travel, it no longer made sense to hold elections on different days in different states. Congress passed a law mandating that the day for choosing electors to send to the Electoral College would occur the first Tuesday in November. This made a lot of sense at the time because it occurred after the fall harvest, and it gave voters who needed to travel enough time to get to the polls without interrupting Sunday worship in America’s predominantly Christian society.

Voter turnout peaked in the 1920s and citizens have not voted in such high numbers since.  Trounstine says this is due to the decline in prevalence of political machines and local party bosses.

Briffault notes that it coincides with the advent of cinema.  With new forms of entertainment available, people started paying less attention to campaigns, debates and rallies.

Both point to the fact that elections occur on only one day, Tuesday, during the work week.

Whatever the reason, some scholars say the decline in voter participation isn’t inherently negative. 

“I think there is a clear ambivalence about the fact that more voters yield better results,” says Andrzej Rapaczynski, constitutional law professor at Columbia University.  “There is credible research that turnout is higher in countries with a lot of instability.  People don’t vote in the US because they don’t see the out come changing their lives in major ways.”

Not voting, he argues, is an important part of the American political system. 

“If everyone votes, then it is just one middle voter who decides, thus pushing both candidates towards the center with few differences between themselves,” he says.

“With 100 percent participation, all differences would disappear.” 

Yet statistics show that wealthier people tend to vote in much higher numbers. And that the poorest and most disaffected are those who vote least.

“Age and income do a lot of the work in predicting voter turnout,” says Dr. Amy Lerman, a professor at Princeton University who focuses on political behavior.

Lerman says that the new voter ID laws will depress the vote disproportionately for the poor.

“Evidence suggests it will make it more difficult to vote, specifically for low income and minority voters,” she says.

Briffault concurs. “It is no accident that every state that adopted voter ID requirements but one [Rhode Island] had a Republican legislature when they added restrictions,” he says.

“Usually parties argue for or against coting? rules if they stand to benefit from them,” Trounstine agrees.

Rapaczynski says that placing some limits on registration ensures that only those who take a little initiative vote.

“As long as the system is not designed to keep out people who are too busy or too poor to vote, it is not too crazy to ask for reasonable interest,” says Rapaczynski. 

Briffault, on the other hand, suggests a nationwide voter database and some enshrined form of automatically registering voters, or allowing them to register on election day, stressing that voter participation is lower the further in advance the deadline to register is.

“Data shows that 80 percent of registered voters actually vote, so the problem is just getting people registered.”  He suggest that high schoolers be automatically registered upon graduation, with avenues for non-graduates to register as well.  New citizens can get a voter card along with their citizenship. He envisions a future in which polling places are more like ATMs.  But that’s still far away.

Right now there isn’t enough infrastructure to accommodate all eligible voters, as faulty machines in Florida were a major factor in the 2000 elections.  A recently released study by the Verified Voting Foundation and the Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic found that only five states are prepared to handle voting machine errors in this cycle.

“The real truth is that if a lot of people actually turned out, the system actually isn’t ready,” says Briffault. 

 

 

About the author

Valerie Hopkins is an American journalist based in New York City.  She spent three years in the Balkans reporting primarily on politics, transitional justice, organized crime and corruption.