Understanding and improving American voter turnout

David Becker, Director of the Election Initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trusts, issued a clarion call in the Stanford Social Innovation Review for a “new approach to reversing the downward spiral of low turnout.”  The article is part of a series on “The Role of Philanthropy and Nonprofits in Increasing US Voter Turnout” sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

There is much to be commended in Becker’s article. He calls for a comprehensive survey to understand non-voters, in contrast to the typical academic surveys that focus on understanding voters.   The survey will feed into field experimental studies that will identify methods and techniques to motivate non-voters to vote, and perhaps more importantly, move tangential (presidential only) voters into habitual voters.

Now comes the academic rain on Becker’s parade.

First, there is little evidence of a “downward spiral” in voter turnout, if by downward spiral, Becker means a self-reinforcing, vicious circle of a low turnout election, followed by political dissatisfaction (perhaps stimulated by a polarized legislature), followed by even lower turnout.

Kelly Born’s article that launched off the series, drawn from the US Elections Project, shows that voter turnout in Presidential and Midterm elections has been mostly unchanged for nearly a century.  There have been bumps up and down, but focusing (as Becker does) on low turnout in 2014 because it coincidentally is the lowest turnout in a federal general election since 1942 is a convenient choice of endpoints while ignoring 70 years of data in between.

Source: University of Florida US Elections Project

What is quite apparent is that turnout in the United States was high in the 19th century, declined during the Progressive era, in part as a consequence of reforms intended to weaken the role of parties in structuring our political system, and in part because two large waves of newly eligible voters entered the system, immigrants and women.

If we focus in more closely on the post-war era, there is an apparent decline in participation after 1968–volumes have been written about the impact of the 1960s on American politics–but also a substantial increase in turnout from 1996-2008.

Courtesy: US Elections Project

Courtesy: US Elections Project

In short, there is little evidence of a downward spiral in turnout.  Instead, as Adam Berinsky points out,

“…the only way to both increase turnout and eliminate socioeconomic biases in the voting population is to increase the engagement of the broader public with the political world. Political information and interest, not the high tangible costs of the act of voting, are the real barriers to a truly democratic voting public.”

This doesn’t mean that detailed surveys focusing on non-voting will not be valuable–they surely will be.  And a toolbox of approaches for non-partisan voter mobilization groups would be an invaluable contribution to the field.

But we need to take seriously the political and structural barriers to substantially increasing participation in the United States.  For instance, the real gains will be made among younger voters (18-29)(call for proposals here), less well-educated voters, and Hispanics (not African Americans, unless participation among this group declines substantially with Obama no longer on the ticket).  (See demographic comparisons here.)

And we need to turn our attention to other elections.  In primary elections, for example, turnout levels are abysmal and primaries arguably have a much larger impact on political polarization.  State and local elections rank even lower (25% turnout is high for a municipal election).  If we are really going to engage citizens with their political system, perhaps engaging them with the neighborhoods, towns, municipalities, and states would yield much higher gains.