Voter turnout has been on the decline in many jurisdictions for years. California’s turnout in the Gubernatorial election of 2014 was a measly 42%. In the Los Angeles City election held in spring 2015, the turnout was a paltry 11%. Pundits, interest groups and elected officials perceive this decline as a crisis- a problem to be solved immediately. Whether a crisis or not, the trend is disturbing and dispiriting for those who administer elections.
Shaming the populace for its lack of participation is often a thread in media coverage, blogs and social media. The implication is that those who don’t vote lack some moral or ethical quality that should be inherent in all good Americans. Interest groups blame barriers, real or imagined, for the lack of participation of their constituencies. Those who appear on the ballots blame the system as they can’t imagine that voters could really be that apathetic about their ideas or them personally. Some of these propose structural changes which will place contests that generate little interest in their own right onto ballots which attract a higher rate of participation. Such solutions are like rearranging the chairs on the deck of a sinking ship– it looks good but doesn’t solve the problem. And candidly, there are many who are just fine with low participation rates as any increase would be, by definition, by uninformed or ill-informed voters.
While there may be a grain of truth in each of these points of view, none of them frame the issue in a manner which reveals an effective solution. The solutions proposed by each are different versions of doing more of the same thing that is already being done—that is– registering voters. Automatic registration, aggressive enforcement of mandated agency based registrations, registration drives, multi-lingual forms, and on-line voter registration applications are great solutions to the issue of getting voters registered. Unfortunately, these activities which suck up almost all the attention and resources directed at improving turnout do not directly engage voters in participating in the act of voting on Election Day.
Participation and engagement in elections in the US is a two-step process: registration then voting. While we measure the rates for each activity, we ultimately judge ourselves by voter turnout. In California, there is not much more to be done in facilitating voter registration other than sustaining the current efforts.
So what about getting voters to the polls to vote? Surveys continually ask voters why they didn’t vote and common answers include- “it was too hard or inconvenient”, or “I didn’t know where to go”, or some other excuse involving something outside of their own control. With no-excuse vote-by-mail, and in some areas, early voting, “hard and inconvenient” is not a credible response. In a land where not voting is considered by some to be a moral defect, it’s reasonable that many would make this kind of excuse. Mailed notifications of assigned polling locations and the internet with its widespread polling place look up tools make ignorance of where to vote another suspect response to the question.
Responses like: “my vote won’t matter anyway” or “they are all lying/they are all the same” or “none of them represent my views” or “the campaigns were too negative” or “it’s all about money” are closer to the real reasons people don’t vote. Rather than being victims, as suggested by the previous responses, these responses indicate that voters who don’t vote may be doing so out of some type of rational decision making process. These reasons for not voting are out of the direct control of election administrators and point to the need for political solutions and reforms rather than administrative fixes.
Serious efforts to improve voter turnout and engagement must also focus and dedicate resources to the second part of the two-step dance- turning out the voter to the polls. The administrative actions of election officials can directly enhance or suppress the effectiveness of voter registration activities but there are no administrative actions which can address the rational reasons voters stay away from the polls.
Doubling down on registration activities, to include registering younger and younger voters, is not the solution. Changing election dates to game the numbers is form without substance. Making voting more convenient is hardly possible if voters choose not to vote. To those proposing solutions: any real solution to the problem of voter turnout needs to take on the thorny political issues underlying the “my vote won’t matter anyway” or “they are all lying/they are all the same” or “none of them represent my views” or “the campaigns were too negative” or “it’s all about money” responses. The right solutions will give voters reasons to vote– by their own choice.