Throughout American history, there has been a steady decline in voter turnout. Not only has this been “humiliating” for the United States, low voter turnout has been and always will be a threat to American Democracy. The concept of democracy is dependent on citizens actively participating in elections and voting to select representatives for public office. The government cannot be representative of the people, unless the people elect its representatives. Voter turnout is a major indicator of how citizens view their electoral system, and whether or not they believe that the system is working.
There are numerous factors that impede voter turnout, including: citizens’ political attitudes, demographic factors, and the structure of the electoral system.
The established registration process is one of the main causes of low voter turnout in the United States. Unlike many democracies, “the United States places the burden of registration on the individual” (Vanishing Voter, 7). There are no penalties for citizens that do not register or vote in American elections.
Some propose that requiring citizens to vote and imposing penalties on those who fail to do so will increase voter turnout. The dilemma with this proposal is that it is fundamentally undemocratic. Citizens of democratic societies are promised the right to vote. In guaranteeing the right to vote, citizens are guaranteed the right not to vote as well. There are better solutions to the problem of low voter turnout in the United States than enacting compulsory voting laws.
America has not established a national system of automatic registration; procedures for voter registration differ from state to state. A universal system of voter registration would make it much more simple for people to vote. The problem with this solution is that automatically registering people to vote does not imply that they will actually go out and vote. Six states have enacted a good solution, same day registration, which has been proven to increase voter turnout anywhere from 10 to 17 percent (Donovan, 182). Same day voter registration allows qualified citizens to register to vote on the day that elections are held. Because many states do not allow same day registration, many Americans do not take the time and effort to register in the first place; same day registration helps to solve this problem. The registration process and electoral system also creates a problem of convenience.
Not only is the registration process inconvenient, Election Day itself is problematic. Election day is held on a Tuesday, impeding the majority of the population from voting due to work-related duties and responsibilities. The solution for this problem is to make Election Day a national holiday. If citizens did not have the responsibility to be at work, they would be much more likely to find time and take the effort to go out and vote. Other solutions have been offered, including: extending the voting period, enacting absentee ballot systems, and voting by mail. While all of these other solutions have made it easier, cheaper and more convenient for citizens to vote, the costs do not fully outweigh the benefits. In any kind of early voting solution, the biggest concern is that early voters vote without knowing all of the significant information needed to make a well-informed vote. Many occurrences and revelations come at the end of the campaigns and can no longer influence voters that have already voted and cannot change their selection.
A voter’s political attitude is the biggest indicator of whether or not he or she will vote. “Interest in the election, concern over outcome, feelings of civic pride, and political efficacy [all] affect how people vote” (Wayne, 83). Throughout American history, there has been a decline in partisan identification. Party allegiance is a stimulus for voting. Since citizens are not as loyal to partisanship as they were in the past, they have less incentive to actually go out and vote in elections. “As a group, independents are 12 percent less likely to vote than are strong partisans” (Wayne, 83). Along with the decline in party identification, interest in political campaigns has been declining steadily overtime as well.
In today’s society, politics is forced to compete with so many other things in the media or at home for people’s attention. Media audiences are more interested in human-interest and celebrity stories than they are in politics. Because of this, election coverage in the media has greatly declined. The media’s coverage of the election is dominated by the use of negative advertising and attack journalism. The frequent use of negative advertising in the media has played a role in America’s declining voter turnout. These negative advertisements repel potential voters; causing them to lose interest in the political campaign. Along with negative advertising, the lack of competition between candidates has also decreased political interests and led to low voter turnout.
Low political efficacy has greatly reduced voter turnout in the United States. Voter efficacy is the belief that one’s vote counts and that voters can change the way government works or public officials behave (Wayne, 83). There are many factors affecting voter efficacy, including education and income. Income plays a major role in voter turnout. With the expansion of poverty in the United States, the gap between the rich and the poor is steadily growing. Citizens of lower income typically have lower voter efficacy. They are also less concerned with the outcome of the election than citizens of higher income levels, therefore, many of these people simply choose not to vote because they feel that they will not be affected by the outcome of the election. Income, education, and likelihood to vote are all positively correlated; more educated citizens have higher income levels and are much more likely to vote.
Education is the greatest influence on voting behavior. “It provides people with the skills for processing and evaluating information; for perceiving differences among the parties, candidates, and issues; and for relating these differences to personal values and behavior” (Wayne, 83). The more educated a citizen is, the more interested they are in the election and the more concerned they are with the outcome. Educated citizens also have a great sense of civic pride and higher voter efficacy. All of these factors combined lead to a much higher likelihood of a person to actually turnout and vote.
To increase political education, some propose conducting citizen education campaigns. The goal of these campaigns is to educate the people on the benefits and responsibility involved with voting. The main problem with this solution is that it is easier said than done. It is very hard to persuade nonvoters to take the time and make the effort to educate themselves on the reasons why they should vote. A better way to increase education and voter turnout is to encourage grassroots campaigns. These “get-out-the-vote” campaigns help motivate interest in elections with nonvoters and can influence them to vote, increasing voter turnout. Neither conducting citizen education campaigns nor encouraging grassroots campaigns can promise an increase in voter turnout, but both can help influencing citizens to vote and possibly lead to higher voter turnout in the United States.
Low voter turnout is a big problem in the United States. According to Wayne, “Low turnout suggests that people may be alienated, lack faith in the candidate and parties, think that the government is and will remain unresponsive to their needs and interests, and believe that they cannot achieve change through the electoral process” (Wayne, 85). The voter turnout problem is very hard to solve because low voter turnout itself leads to less voting. The numerous factors that impede voter turnout include: citizens’ political attitudes, demographic factors, and the structure of the electoral system.
Some of the impediments are structural, but the most influential impediments are caused by other factors, such as the media, political campaigns, and the American citizens. Overall, the benefits of increasing voter turnout greatly outweigh the costs of doing so. While some proposed solutions may work better than others, it is most important to change voter’s attitudes about politics and make it more convenient for American’s to both register and vote. Higher voter turnout will reverse the relentless cycle of low voter turnout and help lead to a more representative democracy.
1. The Road to the White House 2008. 8th edition. Stephen J. Wayne. 20082. Reforming the Republic: Democratic Institutions for the New America. Todd Donowan and Shaun Bowler. 2004