So Why Didn’t More People Vote?

If you’re one of the nearly 126 million people who voted in this past election, give yourself a pat on the back. Unlike you, there are millions of people who didn’t participate in this election, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even in 2008, which had the highest voter turnout in decades, only 62% of eligible citizens voted. Compared to that year, 5 million fewer people voted in 2012 for a total of 93 million eligible citizens who did not vote.

When this figure is compared to those of other countries, the U.S. ranks quite poorly in voter turnout, ranking below the Dominican Republic and 120 other countries. When nations like Australia and Singapore can have regular turnouts of over 90%, why don’t more people in the U.S vote?

One of the obstacles preventing people from voting is that there are haphazard rules regarding voter registration across the country. Rather than having the federal government establish standardized rules, the country has opted to allow individual states to set registration procedures.

The United States is also one of only a few democracies in the world where the government does not take responsibility for automatically registering voters.  Instead, the country leaves the construction of voter rolls up to partisan and non-partisan voter registration organizations, election officials and active citizens. This can lead to inaccuracy in voting rolls, such when a person moves to another state and registers to vote there without canceling the previous registration.

In contrast, the international norm is to automatically register every citizen who reaches voting age and of every person who becomes a citizen. Citizens are automatically placed on voter rolls upon reaching voting age and/or government officials actively work to register all citizens.  For example, in Iraq’s first democratic elections, election officials automatically transferred the names of Iraqis from ration lists to voter rolls.

The U.S. can move towards a system of automatic registration by using verified data from other government agencies to increase the accuracy of voter rolls. And as a fail-safe, citizens should be able to register on the same day as Election Day as to not disenfranchise voters who could not resister earlier. Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie attributes same day registration as the reason why Minnesota is state with the highest voter turnout rate in the nation in 12 of the past 16 elections.

“It’s clearly a critical factor,” he says. “Election Day registration can increase voter turnout by 500,000 people in a presidential election year. And more than 60 percent of Minnesotans have taken advantage of it in their lifetime.”

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2 Comments

  • Britton T. Burdick
    December 6, 2012

    While this article raises an important question I think it misses the mark when it comes to assessing the root of the problem. Same-day voter registration makes things more convenient, but if that was all that stood in the way of voter turnout then we would see a consistent increase in turnout every year (as those who same-day registered in the prior election would come out to vote because they were already registered, and new voters would come to the polls every year to register same-day, rinse, repeat).

    In the same vein, inaccurate voting rolls don’t keep people from voting; it might skew our perception of turnout, however. (E.g. We think there are 190+ million registered voters, but some of them are duplicates due to people having moved without canceling their registration, and thus voter turnout might actually be a higher percentage than is being reported.)

    It’s also relevant to note that many countries have mandatory voting, meaning that if you stay home and do not vote you can end up being fined or even jailed. Australia and Singapore both enforce a variation of compulsory voting policy.

    Participation in a democratic republic is vital to the wellbeing and longevity of a nation, but it’s not just the raw numbers that matter. If you want to get people to the polls you need them to believe that voting matters, that they’re having a hand in controlling the direction of their society, and that their voices will be represented. This lack of interest and disillusion with politics is a growing problem in the United States.

    Yes, some people have to work and don’t have the time to vote; yes, some people aren’t registered, and yes, sometimes people actively try to stop certain demographics from getting to the polls. But those are all very minor when placed next to the fact that many people just don’t care enough to do so. If you want to increase voter turnout in a way that matters we’ll need to do more than drag undecided first-time voters to same-day registration stations and hold their hand while they mark “X” next to whichever candidate’s name dragged them there. We need to change the way representation works and ensure their will is being represented in government.

  • maureen sagan
    December 9, 2012

    One of the biggest reasons people don’t vote is because they feel that if they don’t live in a swing state, their vote doesn’t count; I know a lot of NYers who think this way for example. Also of course some folks simply don’t care, or are uninformed or confused about politics.

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