A new and growing dialogue about increasing voter participation is in the air, and for good reason. Voter turnout in the last midterm election, at 37% of eligible voters, was the lowest the nation has seen since World War II. We simply cannot afford to continue this trend.
Fortunately, a growing number of states are pushing forth solutions to increase voter turnout and strengthen our democracy. Election Day Registration is now available in 13 states, both Republican and Democrat, including 4 states that used it for the first time in 2014. Earlier this year, Oregon became the first state in the nation to enact a form of automatic voter registration, a move that is expected to add over 300,000 voters to the rolls in the first year alone. Though it doesn’t get the big headlines, community groups are also taking the lead in nonpartisan voter engagement where they live.
But before we jump on any one bandwagon, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on why people don’t vote, and why they do – so we can make the right decisions. In Nonprofit VOTE’s recent report “America Goes to the Polls”, we ranked all 50 states in voter turnout in the 2014 midterm to look for trends that can inform thoughtful action by policy makers. It’s clear that the problem of low voter turnout is multi-faceted and change is needed on multiple levels.
First, people need a reason to vote. The fact that competitive elections significantly increase voter turnout should come as no surprise. What is a surprise to many however, is the role public policy plays in whether elections are competitive or not. Over the past few decades, politicians have become increasingly adept at using sophisticated software and massive data files to draw electoral districts that protect incumbents and the party in control. Only 39 of 435 House races were rated as electorally competitive last November, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. This was down from 100 in 2010 (before redistricting) and 57 in 2012. No democracy should have incumbent partisan officials designing their own districts. The use of nonpartisan commissions to lead the redistricting process is one effective strategy for ensuring more competitive elections.
Second, we need to cut the bureaucratic red tape of voter registration. Lots of innovative strategies are out there to streamline and modernize the outdated voter registration process, including pre-registering 16 and 17-year olds (who then get an automatic notice on their 18th birthday). The most powerful and well-tested reform is Election Day Registration, which allows eligible voters to register or fix a registration issue at the polls or their local election office on Election Day. The result? Voter turnout in states with Election Day Registration was 12 points higher on average than states without it during the last election! In fact, 7 of the top 10 voter turnout states had Election Day Registration.
Third, we need to get local. Civic groups, service providers, and local nonprofits need to take the lead in the communities where they operate to engage the people they serve in voting and elections. These social connections from trusted messengers can be game-changing, particularly among young people, low-income groups, and new citizens. Such voters, when they are engaged through a nonprofit or other local groups, vote at rates 12 to 18 points higher than their counterparts who registered elsewhere, according to another report from Nonprofit VOTE, “Can Nonprofits Increase Voting Among their Clients, Constituents, and Staff?”
When it comes to increasing voter turnout, we cannot afford to keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome. Policy makers, active citizens, and community groups around the nation need to take the lead in working to ensure that everyone who can, votes – regardless of their party affiliation or political leanings. That’s what democracy is about.