Last Tuesday, California voters went to the polls to cast their vote in the primary elections for the November midterms. While California is known for many things – great weather, technology, Hollywood – voting in primaries is not one of them. As a state, we have rarely had a stellar turnout record and Tuesday broke through the floor. Preliminary reports published by NBC Bay Area showed turnout for this election at 18%, 10% lower than the previous record.¹ The final number reported by the California Secretary of State’s office only crept up 23.9%.²
Image via http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/2014-California-Primary-Turnout-Worst-Ever-261880561.html
Other primaries that day fared equally poorly, with Alabama approximating a turnout of 22% (previous record was 32% in 2010)³ and New Jersey at 7.6% (next lowest was 8.4% in 2006).⁴ To be fair, it’s true that we should expect voter turnout to be lower not only in midterm elections but in these primary elections too. As President Obama put it, “it’s during these midterms where we end up getting ourselves into trouble, because I guess we don’t think it’s sexy enough.”⁵
While national elections with Presidential candidates on the ballot fluctuated a bit more, it’s clear that voter turnout is problematically low even in the “sexier” campaigns. Taking the average of these four elections, we’re still only at around 59% turnout, just over half the electorate.
So what’s the solution? How do we get the other 41% to the polls? According to Census.gov, the most common reason Americans pointed to for not voting was “too busy, conflicting schedule.”
While other factors rank high as well, such as “not interested” or “didn’t like the candidates,” I want to focus on this top reason – voters not being able to find time to vote. Sure, employers are required by law to allow employees time off to go vote, but it seems that many people are still not able to find the time.
And, as indicated above, many states have put laws into place that allow people to be more flexible about when and how they vote, but the electorate still seems to be sluggish
So what can we do to solve this? Surprisingly, there is one suggestion that Democrats and Republicans agree on! At an event this week sponsored by “Why Tuesday?”, an organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout, Representative John Larson (D-CT) and former Representative Trent Lott (R-MS) agreed that opening up new voting days could help increase turnout. In particular, they were optimistic about introducing weekend voting.⁶
There are many other potential solutions that I believe should be considered as well. Rather that having voting take place on weekends (when many people still have to work), why not make voting days national holidays? While it may not solve state and city level turnouts, we could see a bump in those getting out to vote for national elections. Or, what if companies were required to have give employees half days, either morning or afternoon off, to go vote? Also, with all of the technology out there, can we begin to implement online voting? I know people are worried about voter fraud, but is the risk really any higher online than it is for in person or mail in ballots? We allow people to do their taxes online so why not let them vote online? Another suggestion is to eliminate assigned polling places. Shouldn’t we be able to vote at any polling place that’s convenient for us?
To excite the people who cite “not interested” as their reason for not voting, we need to start making voting cool again. Efforts to do this aren’t really new. There’s initiatives such as Rock the Vote, Vote or Die, and MTV’s Choose or Lose that have been around for years. But these methods are focused on youth voters and tend to be highlighted only during national elections. We also don’t know what the long term impact of these organizations are. Sure, they may increase turnout for that particular election, but do they inspire people to continue to participate? Celebrity endorsements are always helpful as well, but often they are slated to a specific candidate and don’t necessarily encourage voters to learn about the issues. To this end, how do we make not only voting, but learning about the issues cool? This is an area in particular where technology and inflow of new, innovative ideas could really create some meaningful change.
Voting is and should always be voluntary, but it’s also important that those who want to participate can. The only way we can truly serve the country as a whole is if everyone who wants to see change, knows how to make their way towards it. And the more people who cast a vote, the more accurately we can see what the American people really want. Let’s start figuring out more innovative ways to encourage citizens to vote and to ensure that the process is convenient and clear.
¹ Brock, S. and Kiriakos, K. (2014). California Primary Turnout: Worst Ever. NBC Bay Area. Retrieved from http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/2014-California-Primary-Turnout-Worst-Ever-261880561.html
² California Secretary of State. (2014). County Reporting Status. Retrieved from http://vote.sos.ca.gov/returns/status/
³ Associated Press. (2014). Alabama voter turnout lower than 2010. The News Courier. Retrieved from http://www.enewscourier.com/local/x1934105209/Alabama-voter-turnout-lower-than-2010
⁴ O’Dea, C. (2014). Primary Issue: Just How Low Can Voter Turnout Go in New Jersey? NJ Spotlight. Retrieved fromhttp://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2014/06/map_just_how_low_can_voter_turnout_go_in_new_jersey.html
⁵ Madhani, A. (2014). Obama worries state races not seen as ‘sexy.’ USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/theoval/2014/02/21/obama-midterm-races-sexy/5676767/
⁶ Devaney, T. (2014). Bipartisan panel warms to weekend voting. The Hill. Retrieved from http://thehill.com/homenews/209115-bipartisan-panel-warms-to-weekend-voting
Feature image via http://boykosblog.blogspot.com/2012/03/how-to-increase-voter-turnout.html
UPDATE: FEBRUARY 4, 2015
A survey of 1,000 18-24 year olds by Fusion.net found that 49% say they would be more likely to vote if they could cast their ballots online. 38% also said that they would be more likely to vote if they could do so on their mobile phones. More info on the results found here.