Strategies to Increase Voter Turnout
“The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.” –Montesquieu
While the 2020 US presidential election saw record turnout, the United States has historically lagged behind most developed countries in this regard. 2020 was an unusual election year. A global pandemic, mass economic shutdowns or restrictions, and Donald Trump. It seems unlikely that such galvanizing forces will be present in many future elections. The US ordinarily fluctuates between 50-60 percent voter turnout in presidential general elections. That rate drops sharply for presidential primaries, as well as midterms. The 2018 midterms saw a 50 percent voter turnout rate, equivalent to a particularly low showing for a non-apocalyptic general election year. In 2014, where there was no “Trump effect”, it was less than 37 percent.
As of the time of writing, the United States has about 328 million people. About 255 million (78 percent) are 18 or older. Within this voting population, over 53 million people (21 percent) are aged 18-29. Young people have the lowest voter turnout rates, averaging 5-15 percent lower than the overall average, and significantly lower than voters 65 and older, the most reliable age demographic. The following is a list of strategies to increase voter turnout.
Effective But Undesirable Strategies
Compulsory Voting. A number of countries currently make voting mandatory by law. While difficult to enforce (the penalty is usually a fine), it has been shown to dramatically increase turnout. In Australia, for example, turnout rates consistently pass the 90 percent mark. The pragmatic argument against compulsory voting is that the quirks of American culture render such an idea so unpopular as to be politically doomed. The deeper objection is that having tens of millions of apathetic people drag themselves to the voting booth just to avoid a fine may not necessarily result in better outcomes for the country. While Australia’s turnout rates are impressive, the combined effect of mandatory voting with their preferential voting system is a phenomenon known as “donkey voting”, where the sorts of voters who would otherwise stay home just vote down the line as the candidates first appear on the ballot. We should want more people to vote, but it should be for the right reasons.
Voting online. Eventually, everyone will vote online. It’s inevitable. And it’s hard to argue it wouldn’t vastly increase turnout. But enough of the country is either technologically illiterate, lacking reliable high-speed internet access, or suspicious of online voting that this should not be pursued for at least a decade. The public perception of the integrity of US elections currently hangs by a thread. Online voting would destroy what little faith remains. We are too fragile a society right now.
Lowering the Voting Age to 16. Proponents note that lowering the voting age to 16 is appropriate because it coincides with driving eligibility and the ability to work full time (and pay taxes). The objections to lowering the voting age are not strong. 16 and 17 year olds aren’t knowledgeable or wise enough? Neither are most voters. 16 and 17 year olds aren’t intelligent enough? Do we really want to play that game? Think of the implications of that logic on mentally disabled voters, or elderly voters who have experienced some cognitive decline. Slippery slope to elementary schoolers voting? Hardly. There are some Democratic partisans who support this chiefly because the Dems would stand to gain from it, and some Republican partisans who oppose it for the same reason.
The rest of society is generally skeptical about the idea, and that skepticism cannot be assuaged with reasoned arguments or data. Any move to increase the franchise would obviously result in an increase in turnout, but this one may need some time to percolate through society. Time was, 18 year olds couldn’t vote. Things can change, but the US isn’t ready for this one just yet.
Restore Voting Rights to Felons. This is an issue that varies state by state. Maine and Vermont have no restrictions whatsoever on felons voting — they can even vote from prison. 11 states restrict felon voting rights post-sentence, and the rest fall somewhere in between these two extremes. The end result: there are currently about 5.2 million disenfranchised felons in the US — 2.2 percent of the voting-age population. Trends here have been moving in a liberal direction overall, but this remains very controversial in some quarters.
More Polling Places. In some parts of the country, polling places are either few and far between, or too few to keep pace with the population size. This makes it more difficult for people who have little free time, lack access to vehicles, or cannot physically wait in long lines to vote. Increasing the number of polling places in these areas will make it easier for more people to vote, and reduce waiting times as well. There should be at least one polling place within a few miles of every registered voter. Polling hours also vary by state. Having all states open no later than 6:00 AM and close no sooner than 8:00 PM would help too.
Make Election Day a Holiday. One of the best ways to boost voter turnout is ensuring that a larger percentage of the electorate doesn’t have to work on election day. Plus, who wouldn’t love an extra day off?
Mandate Early Voting. Some states currently do it, some states don’t. Federal legislation should mandate that all states have early voting for at least a few days running up to election day. The pre-2020 data is unclear whether early voting has much of an effect on increasing voter turnout (the 2020 data tells a different story), but it does make voting more convenient, and it can’t hurt.
Ranked Choice Voting. RCV is where voters rank the field of candidates by preference, marking their first choice, second, third, and so on. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote, the bottom candidates are eliminated, and their voters’ second choices are activated. This process continues until one candidate gets 51 percent. This reduces “wasted” votes and offers voters more meaningful choices. Many non-voters feel unrepresented, or that the whole process is pointless. Ranked choice voting makes elections more representative, more democratic, more competitive, and more diverse. And indeed, studies analyzing localities where RCV has been implemented show increased turnout by about 10 percent.
Make Photo IDs as Easy as Possible to Obtain. In some GOP-controlled states, laws are passed requiring voters to present government-issued photo IDs at polling places in order to vote, thus depressing turnout among those without such identification. Rather than expending resources, time, and political capital fighting Republicans’ efforts to institute these policies, voting rights advocates should instead be pursuing ways to get legal photo IDs to as many people as possible. Yes, the Republican pretext of concern over voter fraud is virtually non-existent in the data — what the GOP apparently wants is to suppress the vote of certain demographics who lean heavily Democratic. But photo IDs are universally useful and often required credentials to fully function in modern society. Rather than resist the GOP because we abhor their motives, let’s help those without these needed IDs get them.
Politicians Doing Their Jobs. Dysfunction, gridlock, and corruption breed distrust. Distrust breeds apathy. Perhaps if the electorate could see politicians delivering on their promises and getting things done now and then, they might see a point in voting. You’ve likely caught the problem here: the same do-nothing political hacks taking up space in Washington are the ones who benefit from voter apathy. The con isn’t that the game is rigged — it actually isn’t. The con, conscious or not, is in the impression that it’s rigged, thereby dissuading people from participating.
Youth Vote Strategies
Automatic DMV Voter Registration. 18 states plus Washington D.C. currently have automatic DMV voter registration. This allows eligible voters to register at the same time they apply for or renew their driver’s license. This policy should be adopted in as many states as possible.
High School and College Strategies. High school teachers or college professors in relevant subjects could require eligible students to show proof of voter registration in order to pass, or for extra credit. Proof of voter registration could also become something universities begin taking into consideration for acceptance, akin to extracurriculars.
The political culture of young people in the social media era is the politics of demands. Many young people hold their votes for ransom until politicians or candidates meet their demands. If they don’t get what they want, exactly how they want it, they take their ball and go home — loudly whining the whole way. That is not how politics works. You don’t get political clout and leverage by threatening not to vote. If you are a non-voter, you have signaled your irrelevance to the political world. You can march in the streets, sign petitions, and tweet until you’re blue in the face. Activism, done right, can be effective, but in today’s world, activism without voting is like switching to organic ketchup for your bacon triple cheeseburger — it’s unclear what you’re realistically expecting to achieve.
Young people have to earn their seat at the table, it cannot be given. You cannot demand politicians or candidates meet your purity test or you won’t vote. You must first establish a reliable pattern of voting, as a bloc, and then your voice will be taken seriously. Why would a politician risk alienating certain voting blocs that they know for a fact will vote, in order to woo a bloc who might not even vote at all? If politicians know you’ll vote, they also know that if you don’t vote for them, you’ll be voting for their opponent. This makes your vote twice as valuable to them.
There is a culture of cynicism, jadedness, and doomerism among today’s youth, a pervasive attitude that everything is hopelessly broken and that the “system” is irredeemable. Democracy itself is markedly less popular among young people. Above all else, if we want to see dramatic improvement in youth voter turnout, there needs to be a culture change.
See also: “The Great Realignment That Wasn’t”