American Political Attitudes and Participation

4e. Voting: A Forgotten Privilege?

Woman at voting booth
Courtesy of WRAL Online
Voter participation is lower in local elections, especially in years when there are no presidential elections. This woman votes in a mayoral election in Raleigh, NC.

Voting is at the heart of democracy. A vote sends a direct message to the government about how a citizen wants to be governed. And yet, only 48.8 % of eligible voters actually cast their ballots in the 1996 presidential election. That figure represents the lowest general presidential election turnout since 1824. In off-year elections (those when the president is not running) the statistics are even worse. Why don't people vote?

Aside from voter attitudes, there are institutional barriers that could be impacting voter turnout. Among the most commonly cited examples are the following:

1. Difficulty of Registration.
In the early years of the 20th century, both political parties were caught stuffing ballot boxes with bogus votes, and the states decided to make it more difficult for a person to vote. So most of them set up a host of voting requirements, including registration at least 10 to 30 days before an election. Most other democracies make it much easier for a citizen to vote. For example, some countries automatically register their citizens to vote. In the United States, the citizen is responsible for his or her own registration. States that have permitted same-day registration have seen slightly higher voting rates than other states.

2. Difficulty of Absentee Voting.
Even if you remember to register ahead of time, you can only vote in your own precinct. If you are going to be out of town on Election Day, you have to vote by absentee ballot. States generally have stringent rules about voting absentee. In some, you have to apply for your ballot in person.

Mandatory Voting

The Federal Election Committee is responsible for federal elections. They provide services to candidates as well as voters.

Some countries make it mandatory for citizens to vote. Should the United States do the same?

3. The Number of Offices to Elect.
Americans elect more people to public office than do citizens of any other democracy. For example, in Britain the only national vote cast by citizens is for their representatives to Parliament. In the United States, we vote for Representatives, Senators, as well as the President and Vice-President. We also vote for Governors, Senators, and Representatives on the state level. In some states, a citizen may vote for many other state officials, such as Lieutenant Governor, Judges, and State Commissioners. And we have special local elections for school board, Mayors, and City Council members. With so many elections and candidates — largely due to our system of federalism — elections are frequent. Someone is being elected to some office almost every week in United States. Such frequent voting can depress turnout.

4. Weekday Voting.
In many other democracies, elections take place on weekends. By law, national general elections in the United States are held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years. Most state and local elections are also held during the week. Many people find it difficult to get off work in order to go vote.

5. Weak Political Parties.
In many countries, parties make great efforts to get people to the polls. Even in earlier days in the United States, parties called their members to ensure that they registered and voted. Parties also would often provide transportation to the polls. American political parties today are not as strongly organized at the "grass roots" — or local — level.

The Motor-Voter Law

How can the United States improve its voter turnout? A major reform of recent year aims at the difficult registration process. In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act, more commonly known as the "Motor-Voter" Law. The act requires states to allow people to register to vote when applying for a driver's license. The legislation took effect in 1995, but it did not improve voter turnout in the 1996 presidential election.

However, its supporters estimate that an additional 50 million people will eventually be registered as a result of the law. Critics say that it will increase voter fraud and that it will be expensive for the states to implement. Some Republicans have expressed fears that the law was a gimmick to register more inner-city Democrats.

Perhaps the medium that could herald the greatest change is the Internet. The connected online world allows for the potential of easier registration, more convenient voting, and a host of new ways of participating in the American democracy.

On the Web
Motor-Voter — National Voter Registration Act
In an attempt to improve voter turnout in the United States, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act — better known as the "motor-voter" law — in 1993. The Act allowed citizens to register to vote when applying for a driver's license. The motor-voter homepage includes links to public opinion polls, extensive information on the Act itself, and several voter-friendly tools, including a way to request an absentee ballot.
The Center for Voting and Democracy
FairVote (formerly the Center for Voting and Democracy) studies voting systems and how those systems affect voters, voter turnout, representation, and more. Their website is home to dozens of informative articles on topics such as proportional representation and voting rights. Of special interest are the results of their youth essay contest on "Why We Don't Vote."
Student PIRGS
Students have the power to shape the future we will inherit. We work with professional staff at colleges and universities to make sure our peers have the skills, opportunities and training they need to create a better, more sustainable future for all of us
Register to vote
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