In response to John Guy’s recent post on voter turnout, I felt compelled to strongly rebut his claims. Guy claims that low voter turnout is not a threat to our democracy and that criticism about not voting is a side show for commentators and politicians. He also asserts that low voter turnout will actually help reduce the costs of elections while achieving the same results: “… I assume that those who vote are a reliable and accurate sample of everyone, including those who do not vote. I assume that 5,000 voters will arrive at the same decision as 50 million.” This claim, especially, stands in stark contrast to the experience of recent elections.
Voting is the bedrock of democracy, compelling citizens to participate. Without strong voter turnout there is little legitimacy to our democratic institutions and leaves the public less willing to carry out the decisions made by elected leaders. Long ago our founding fathers asserted that we will be self-governed, an assertion grounded in the idea that all citizens be informed and participate. Today the truth is that those who choose to vote are not representative of the nation.
The fact is that the electorate changes significantly from election to election. After a flurry of democratic participation during the 2008 election, turnout dropped from 62% to 41% during the 2010 midterm elections. According to a CIRCLE analysis, participation rates of young citizens especially fell through the floor dropping 27 percentage points for 18-29 year old registered voters. The GOP majority in Congress and 20 GOP governorships and state legislative majorities were swept into office by an electorate in 2010 that was significantly older and whiter than the electorate that gave President Obama majorities in 2008 and 2012.
The 2012 electorate, however, was still far from representative of the nation. Pew’s research prior to the 2012 election reveals a wide gulf between the likely voters and non-voters. At the time of the poll, likely voters were split between President Obama and Governor Romney 47%-47% while non-voters supported the President 59%-24%. Hispanic citizens were 21% of non-voters while only 7% of likely voters. Citizens with income under $30,000 were only 20% of the likely voters and 52% of non-voters. Non-voters often lack the civic literacy to effectively participate, but these citizens should still have their needs considered by their government.
It’s easy to blame non-voters for not doing their citizenly duty of voting, but the reality is there are many reasons for low turnout. Among young registered voters who did not vote in 2010, only 17.2% said they were not interested and 5.8% said they did not like the candidates. The majority of non-voters said they were too busy (33.5%), forgot (10.2%), or were away from home (10.2%). There are practical steps to take to engage these non-voters, including the suggestions Guy makes to extend voting hours or online voting. Candidates and political parties, however, have to do better at actually reaching out to give people a reason to vote.
In my home of Indianapolis the May primary election turnout countywide reached record lows of 7.96%. Contrast that with record high turnouts in India’s recent nationwide election where 66.4% turned out in a nation of 1.2 billion people. If we believe in democracy as we have implored nations around the world to do so, then we need to take seriously the practical benefits of having every citizen with skin in the game. Low turnout is a threat to our democracy as an increasingly skewed sample of citizens are picking leaders that must govern all citizens.
Matt Impink is a former US History Teacher and Education Policy Advocate. He is currently a Graduate Student at IU’s School for Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) in Indianapolis and curates the Civic Blog. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @mrimpink.