A right and a privilege: addressing low voter turnout in the United States

December 12, 2016

Source: Pew Research Center

In general, voter turnout in the United States is shockingly low. According to FairVote.org, voting was at its highest at only 63.9% in 1960 between Republican candidate Richard Nixon and Democratic candidate/winner John F. Kennedy. It had plummeted to its lowest a couple decades before at 48.9% in 1924 between Republican candidate/winner Calvin Coolidge and Democratic candidate John W. Davis. To put this in context, according to Pew Research Center, compared to 35 other developed nations, US is ranked 31 in terms of voter turnout. Belgium takes first place at 87.2%, followed closely by Turkey and Sweden.

Then, looking at this year’s election between current Republican President-elect Donald Trump and his former opponent Hillary Clinton, according to CNN the voter turnout has fallen to a 20 year low at only 55%. Just of the over half of the nation’s eligible voters cast their ballots to determine the political, social, and economic path of their nation.

“I am not surprised that there were very few voters this year. Many people did not like either of the main options, so they refused to choose. While this is a nice movement, it was somewhat wasted, because we were going to end up with one of the candidates no matter what,” freshman Martha Slaven said.

Many other students were extremely hopeful that, while they couldn’t cast their own vote, others who were old enough would register and do so. “It is definitely surprising … because most of the people I talked to were extremely passionate about one candidate or the other,” said junior Maya Shrestha.

On the other side, Senior Cole Staples stated that “I would’ve expected many less people to vote in an election with candidates that were as broadly unpopular as Mr. Trump or Secretary Clinton.”

Staples also references the inability for voters to decide between the candidates as a cause for the lower than ideal turnout. “I think that many people didn’t vote because they felt unsatisfied with either candidate. There is also a large proportion of eligible voters each election who don’t vote due to lack of interest … I think that all these reasons could play a role.”

Since this election, student might have heard family, friends, and other have complaining about the lazy young adults or passive older citizens – the 45% – simply choosing not to vote. Usually these people are imagined as privileged in some way – either wealthy, white, male, or all three.

“You would think that being able to decide the future of your country would be incentive enough [for voters],” said Shrestha in reference to those who actively choose not to participate in democracy.

They’re passive about their nation’s future and they make many students at St. Paul Academy and Summit School feel frustrated or helpless because, being high school students, they cannot vote yet.

“Even though I am not the biggest fan of either candidate, I still have strong feelings about who the better candidate would have been, so I would have voted,” Slaven said.

But, while this apathy does exist and is a problem, there are also a lot of people not voting who exist in a very different place in terms of race, age, and socioeconomic status from our idea of the undecided or careless voter. The larger problem in over turnout perhaps isn’t just the privileged citizen who chooses not to cast their vote, but elements of the voting system that bars minorities from doing so.

Scroll over the legend to view point values for each race, or click show all values.

White citizens have consistently voted at higher rates than African Americans and Hispanics. And, out of the total voting pool in 2014, whites made up 76.3%. Their votes cast exceeded their eligibility by 6.4%, meaning that, because of low turnout from people of color, their votes made up a larger fraction of the total pool.

In terms of voting by age, the group with the largest turnout are those age 65 and up, followed by each age group in decreasing order. The age group with the lowest turnout are those age 18-34 at a shocking 23.1%. And, overall, the voting turnout rate in each of these groups has decreased since 1978.

Also, groups with higher annual family incomes have higher voter turnout, the greatest at 56.6% of voters in 2014 with $150,000 or more. The group with the largest number of actual voters was around 12,400 for those with an income between $50,000 and $74,999.

So, all these statistics combined show that the group that’s currently being represented the most is that of white, upper class, older people. The experiences, desires, and political views of a wealthy white 60 year old differs greatly from that of a young person of color yet the former gets to decide the nation’s president. This is why many feel it’s important that everyone who is eligible to vote actually does so. However, this low turnout and under-representation isn’t completely due to people too lazy to vote. While carelessness does account for some of this disparity and for low turnout in general, not all of these people are passively watching their nation elect a new president. Some face barriers like tight work hours, voter ID laws, and even voter-suppression.

Voter registration laws negatively impact low income and minority voters

Voter registration and the act of voting in the US is difficult. Unlike many other developed nations, the US government does not play a role in voter registration. Instead, it leaves it up to self-motivated and eligible citizens to do so and for individual states to make their own voter registration requirements. Not only is this an easy way to encourage apathy, it’s more so an easy way to make voting more difficult to those who want to vote. From extremely strict voter ID laws to the issue of having election day on a Tuesday, the US voting system pushes many otherwise productive citizens out of the polls.

Current voter ID Laws vary among states, ranging from no ID necessary to a strict identification requirement. The rationale behind these laws is to decrease chances of voter fraud. It seems like an easy and necessary requirement, especially to people like students at SPA who know exactly where their permit or driver’s license is at any moment.

Senior Elena Macomber stated that her knowledge of voter ID laws is limited: “But, I know that a lot of states are trying to implement restrictions that are reminiscent of post reconstruction laws.”

Many remember reading in US History class about the Voting Rights Act, a landmark piece of legislation passed by president Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 to prevent racial discrimination at the polls. This, a sort of extension to the 15th Amendment granting voting rights to all races in 1870, outlawed methods such as literacy tests from being implemented to suppress the votes of African Americans. Although actions many citizens still tried to bar black people from voting, the Act gave them a law to point to that stated their rights. Then, in 2013, the Supreme Court repealed key elements of this monumental Act.

According to the New York Times, in a 5-to-4 vote the Court decided to lift restrictions on nine southern states – Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and other areas of states such as New York. The rationale for this was that these restrictions were unconstitutional and outdated – according to the NYT “The current coverage system, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, is ‘based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.’” In this, she’s referencing the racism faced by people of color in the US. But, this is false – the US is not a post-racist society, this change lead to an increase in voting restrictions, and voter turnout has decreased as a result.

Staples cites this change as a likely reason for increased restrictions on voter ID laws. “I think that strict voter ID laws do suppress minority vote in states that implement them, and this is a consequence of the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act. All voter ID does is make it more difficult for legitimate voters to vote.” he said.

These laws negatively impact many people of color, low income Americans, and immigrants, is unnecessary, and has shown to decrease voter turnout. Research conducted by political scientists from the University of Southern California found that states with tighter voter ID restrictions consistently had lower voter turnout. This is because it’s not actually that easy to get an ID because of the paperwork and time, and not everyone needs a passport or driver’s license.

“ID’s, along with a lot of other registration like that, is hard to get and often requires birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and money to pay for it. I’m pretty sure that the people who are pro voter IDs are also people who do not have the best interests  of [minorities] in mind,” senior Ellie Brass said.

In an article by the Washington Post, a man by the name of Anthony Settles from Texas attempted to vote but, because of the state’s new strict voter ID laws, he couldn’t. He brought with him his Social Security card, university ID from the University of Houston, and an expired Texas ID card – but, for some reason, this wasn’t enough. He didn’t have a photo ID because his changed name didn’t match his birth certificate – something true for many people, especially immigrants who need to change their name to fit the typical English first-middle-last name structure. In order to get an ID in Settle’s case, he had to go through a time consuming, and costly, process – simply to prevent voter fraud.

However, according to a study by Loyola School professor Justin Levitt, only 31 cases of voter impersonation exist. The cost of losing voters, especially minorities who are already underrepresented, outweighs any small benefit towards preventing a problem that barely exists. Other countries with higher voter turnout allow bank books, credit cards, checkbooks, and marriage certificates to be used in place of an official state identification.

“I think that states should take away restrictions that target certain groups instead of doing their intended jobs,” Brass said.

Brass also states that finding ways to make the voter registration process less of a hassle would potentially increase turnout.

Along with voter ID laws, as Brass mentioned, other parts voter registration like getting the form, filling it out, and mailing it, make the process as a whole difficult. It may seem simple, but without a car or other transportation means, access to an acceptable state ID, and time that could be spent earning money, the process becomes much more difficult.

Macomber states that changing voting laws to make it easier for people to vote could be a solution to increase turnout: “Well, this will never happen in America especially now because republicans are in control of the house, but in a lot of countries people are automatically registered to vote when they turn 18. And, in Sweden and Italy, elections and referendums occur on the weekends, so I mean that doesn’t benefit everyone but it’s a lot easier to go vote on the weekends and a lot of people are turned off by registering to vote,” she said.

Countries with compulsory voting

Scroll to view the countries’ names

Nations such as Australia, Greece, Thailand, and Luxembourg have taken it one step further by requiring through law for all eligible voters to vote – those who don’t often must pay a fine. However, one key idea behind the United States and the nation’s values is freedom – freedom to say, think, do and, in turn, freedom to not do something. Requiring citizens to vote would compromise this value.

So, in terms of voter registration changes the US has made some headway. In states like Oregon, California, West Virginia, Vermont, Alaska, Connecticut, and Washington D.C. have already implemented a less forceful program where citizens of appropriate age registered in the Department of Motor Vehicles are automatically registered. States which implemented this program saw great increases in turnout. In order to opt out, participants need to actively choose not to vote which is more difficult than remaining registered and forces them to think about their decision when doing so. This solutions is meant to increase turnout overall, especially for younger or busier voters. However, this doesn’t entirely solve the problems in all states or the issues around situations such as Settles’.

“There are large hurdles for pool and minority voters. Also, poor voters are put at a disadvantage if they are not able to take Election Day off of work,” Staples said.

Tuesday voting prevents many busier voters from casting their ballot

As mentioned earlier, the US voting system voting day is during the workweek – on Tuesday. However, actually going through the process of registering and voting early or casting an absentee ballot can take up time as well. And, some states require voters to do this anywhere from a week to over a month before election day.

When looking at voting rates for alternative methods like absentee or early ballots, it is clear that the rates between Hispanics, whites, and African Americans is more comparable. It shows that Hispanics make up 36.8% of this population. This trend indicates that, out of the few minorities which are voting, many of them are doing so beforehand through alternative voting methods. A lot of people use these alternative methods because they cannot afford to miss work, and this is especially true for people with lower incomes or jobs with less wiggle room in terms of hours.

As mentioned before, Sweden’s voter turnout is much higher than that of the US. According to an article by National Public Radio, “students and those who work more than one job, voting on Tuesday can be a challenge. Being ‘too busy’ is often cited as the most common reason for not voting, and 27 percent claimed they were in 2010.” Yet, 16 states don’t even allow early voting.

“I think that if Election Day were made a federal holiday like President’s’ Day or Thanksgiving, then more voters would turn out simply because they have nothing better to do if they have the day off of school or work,” Staples said.

The point of democracy is for everyone to have an equal voice in politics and for equal representation. Voting is a right that everyone deserves to have access to regardless of their demographic because it determines their future, that of their loved ones, and that of their nation.

To vote or not to vote: a right and a privilege

In many other countries citizens have little to no say in the politics of their nation. The ability to participate in the election of the nation’s president is an honor. “I have been raised to believe that voting is a civic duty, that it is a right that is very recent in some cases, and that I should vote no matter what … there would have to be some drastic measure to keep me from voting,” Brass said.

Next election, many SPA students, such as Brass, Staples, Shrestha, and Macomber, will be eligible to vote. “I think I’m always going to vote. I’m going to vote in the off-year elections, you know, I’m going to vote all the time,” Macomber said.

Each person will each likely pick a candidate and root for them with all our hearts and minds, presidential or otherwise. Some students understand why people would choose not to vote, such as Staples who stated that “I could see myself not voting in the future if both candidates repulsed me in an irreconcilable way, but even then I would simply leave my presidential vote blank and vote on down ballot candidates.”

Others feel that, no matter what, it is their duty and moral obligation to vote. “I don’t think I would ever not vote in an election because it is such a privilege to be able to participate in a democracy … I also have family members who can’t vote here so I wouldn’t want to not use my vote when they don’t even get one,” she said.

Regardless of whether one ends up celebrating or feeling dismay, voting for all ballot candidates or skipping over some, it is evident that students at SPA feel invested in some way in American politics. Hopefully next election they can look at the voter turnout and know that over 55% of the nation participated. But, if this isn’t the case and since it definitely isn’t the case right now, students must remember the significance of being able to vote, and know that many of the people who didn’t cast their ballot simply couldn’t due numerous reasons and restrictions.


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