This is a complex issue, and there are many variables that cause the problem, including lack of voter and civics education, voter apathy and disillusionment, economic stress, racism and disenfranchisement.
Laws are being passed to limit citizen access to registration, to expunge people from the voting roles, to repress groups that have registered low income voters.
As a possible solution to this, I have often considered the question of whether or not we should make voting compulsory. I've read arguments, pro and con, about compulsory voting, and at this stage of my life, I am leaning toward the pro side.
Brookings Institution political theorist and former adviser to Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Walter Mondale, William A. Galston, wrote this recent opinion piece in the New York Times supporting the idea:
Telling Americans to Vote, or Else
JURY duty is mandatory; why not voting? The idea seems vaguely un-American. Maybe so, but it’s neither unusual nor undemocratic. And it would ease the intense partisan polarization that weakens our capacity for self-government and public trust in our governing institutions.
Thirty-one countries have some form of mandatory voting, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. The list includes nine members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and two-thirds of the Latin American nations. More than half back up the legal requirement with an enforcement mechanism, while the rest are content to rely on the moral force of the law.
Our southern neighbors in Brazil require and enforce voting, and have managed in recent years to have Workers' Party presidents, and their first woman elected to the presidency.
Curtis Gans, co-founder and director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, gave this testimony before the Senate Rules Committee in 2009:
There is a better way which is currently in practice within our neighbor to the south which has transformed what had been one of the most corrupt electoral systems anywhere into one that is respected and trusted by its citizenry.
If we, like they, had a government-provided (and paid for, including outreach and
documentation) mandatory biometric identification card and system, every citizen aged 18 and over would be enfranchised and none of the putative fraud (and intimidation and suppression) associated with the current registration system could occur. Voting would be, in this nation as in most other nations, a one-step act. Citizens would no longer need to qualify themselves through registration. All they need do is vote with confidence that their vote will be counted accurately.
Universal registration is an idea which must be examined, and along with that we must enfranchise those who have been disenfranchised due to convictions.
Study: Non-Voting Felons Increasing
On Election Day, nearly 1.4 million voting-age black men — more than one in eight — will be ineligible to cast ballots because of state laws that strip felons of the right to vote.
“Here we are, 50 years after the beginning of the civil rights movement, and we actually have an increasing number of African-Americans who are disenfranchised each year,” said Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project, which analyzed 1996 Justice Department statistics along with Human Rights Watch.
Disenfranchised black males account for 35 percent of all Americans now barred from voting because of felony convictions. Two percent of all Americans, or 3.9 million, have lost the right to vote, compared with 13 percent of adult black men.
The Sentencing Project reports, in New Report Details Voting Law Restrictions:
The Brennan Center for Justice has published a new report on state legislative changes made to voting laws in anticipation of the 2012 elections. The report finds that many state governments have gone to great lengths to make it harder to register to vote, or to restore the right to vote. According to the report, “Disenfranchisement after criminal conviction remains the single most significant barrier to voting rights in the United States.”
The report singles out Iowa and Florida as having enacted particularly draconian voting rights policies. While both states had eased their rights restoration policies in recent
years, new Republican governors Terry Branstad of Iowa and Rick Scott of Florida used executive actions to de facto permanently disenfranchise all people with felony convictions. In Florida, as many as a million people could be disenfranchised as a result of the new rules; Iowa previously had the highest rate of disenfranchisement of African Americans in the country before the restoration process had been eased in 2005.
The report singles out Iowa and Florida as having enacted particularly draconian voting rights policies. While both states had eased their rights restoration policies in recent years, new Republican governors Terry Branstad of Iowa and Rick Scott of Florida used executive actions to de facto permanently disenfranchise all people with felony convictions. In Florida, as many as a million people could be disenfranchised as a result of the new rules; Iowa previously had the highest rate of disenfranchisement of African Americans in the country before the restoration process had been eased in 2005.
Political scientists, sociologists and demographers have spent a lot of research time looking at the people whom PEW has recently dubbed "The Party of Nonvoters." They took a look at these non-voters in 2010:
Turnout in midterm elections typically is less than 40% of the voting age population (in 2006 it was 37%), and there is no reason to expect that it will be dramatically higher in 2010. Who are these likely nonvoters who constitute a majority of the American public this year?
Based on an analysis of a September national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, nonvoters are younger, less educated and more financially stressed than likely voters. Nonvoters are significantly less Republican in their party affiliation than are likely voters, and more supportive of an activist federal government. Despite their more difficult economic circumstances, nonvoters express greater satisfaction with national conditions than do likely voters, and are more likely to approve of Barack Obama's job performance.
The results of their study mirrored data from a report by The California Voter Foundation (CVF), Why Don't More Americans Vote?
Who are the non-voters?
The survey found that nonvoters are disproportionately young, single, less educated and more likely to be of an ethnic minority than infrequent and frequent voters. 40 percent of nonvoters are under 30 years old, compared to 29 percent of infrequent voters and 14 percent of frequent voters. Infrequent voters are much more likely to be married than nonvoters, with 50 percent of infrequent voters married compared to only 34 percent of nonvoters. 76% of nonvoters have less than a college degree, compared to 61 percent of infrequent voters and 50 percent of frequent voters. Among nonvoters, 54 percent are white or Caucasian compared to 60 percent of infrequent voters and 70 percent of frequent voters.
PEW has also done targeted research on the growing Latino electorate:
The Latino Electorate in 2010: More Voters, More Non-Voters
More than 6.6 million Latinos voted in last year's election—a record for a midterm—according to an analysis of new Census Bureau data by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center. Latinos also were a larger share of the electorate in 2010 than in any previous midterm election, representing 6.9% of all voters, up from 5.8% in 2006. Rapid population growth has helped fuel Latinos' increasing electoral participation. According to the Census Bureau, 50.5 million Hispanics were counted by the 2010 Census, up from 35.3 million in 2000. Over the same decade, the number of Latino eligible voters—adults who are U.S. citizens—also increased, from 13.2 million in 2000 to 21.3 million in 2010.
However, even though more Latinos than ever are participating in the nation's elections, their representation among the electorate remains below their representation in the general population. In 2010, 16.3% of the nation's population was Latino, but only 10.1% of eligible voters and fewer than 7% of voters were Latino. This gap is driven by two demographic factors—youth and non-citizenship. More than one third of Latinos (34.9%) are younger than the voting age of 18. And an additional 22.4% are of voting age, but are not U.S. citizens. As a result, the share of the Latino population eligible to vote is smaller than it is among any other group. Just 42.7% of the nation's Latino population is eligible to vote, while more than three-in-four (77.7%) of whites, two-thirds of blacks (67.2%) and more than half of Asians (52.8%) are eligible to vote. Yet, even among eligible voters, Latino participation rates lag those of other groups. In 2010, 31.2% of Latino eligible voters say they voted, while nearly half (48.6%) of white eligible voters and 44.0% of black eligible voters said the same.
This gap in voter participation between Latinos and other groups is partly due to the large share of Latino eligible voters that are under 30. In 2010, 31.3% of Latino eligible voters were ages 18 to 29, while 19.2% of white, 25.6% of black and 20.7% of Asian eligible voters were under 30. Among young Latino eligible voters, just 17.6% voted. In contrast, among Latino eligible voters ages 30 and older, the voter turnout rate was higher—37.4%.
As we move toward the 2012 elections and beyond, we need to identify better methods to engage first time voters, enhance registration, enact legislation that provides access to all and not the few, and support efforts to push-back against restrictions.
Back in August, Rolling Stone published this article by Ari Berman, in The GOP War on Voting:
In a campaign supported by the Koch brothers, Republicans are working to prevent millions of Democrats from voting next year
As the nation gears up for the 2012 presidential election, Republican officials have launched an unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign to suppress the elements of the Democratic vote that elected Barack Obama in 2008. Just as Dixiecrats once used poll taxes and literacy tests to bar black Southerners from voting, a new crop of GOP governors and state legislators has passed a series of seemingly disconnected measures that could prevent millions of students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly from casting ballots. "What has happened this year is the most significant setback to voting rights in this country in a century," says Judith Browne-Dianis, who monitors barriers to voting as co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C.
Republicans have long tried to drive Democratic voters away from the polls. "I don't want everybody to vote," the influential conservative activist Paul Weyrich told a gathering of evangelical leaders in 1980. "As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." But since the 2010 election, thanks to a conservative advocacy group founded by Weyrich, the GOP's effort to disrupt voting rights has been more widespread and effective than ever. In a systematic campaign orchestrated by the American Legislative Exchange Council – and funded in part by David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who bankrolled the Tea Party – 38 states introduced legislation this year designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process.
I've talked here in the past about the fact that many of my students are just registering to vote for the first time-and were confused about where to go to find information about candidates, or even who is running in their districts. I've pointed them to websites like Project Vote Smart and the efforts of groups like The Advancement Project, and The Sentencing Project.
We can turn non-voters into informed voters. Let's do it!