Thanks to technological advances, it’s never been easier for the majority of US voters to get election information and cast their ballots. Most Americans can now go online to register to vote, choose to vote early, and vote by mail—millions have ballots automatically mailed to their homes for each election—and, thanks to the Voting Information Project, Google, and other partners, receive polling place and ballot information with a simple swipe on their smartphones.
Although critical work remains to be done to extend the reach of these advances, they represent dramatic steps toward modernizing the field of election administration. But we cannot stop here. In spite of this progress, voter turnout across the United States declined last year to levels not seen since World War II.
Data from the United States Election Project indicate that national turnout in November 2014 was less than 37 percent. That means that nearly 2 in 3 eligible voters, or approximately 144 million American citizens—more than the population of Russia—chose to sit out that election. Put another way, more than 47 million Americans who navigated the system and cared enough to cast ballots in November 2012 decided not to vote two years later. The nation hasn’t recorded turnout this low in a federal general election since 1942.
California, Nevada, and New Mexico illustrate the trend: Despite high-profile statewide races at several levels (governor, lieutenant governor, and secretary of state, as well as a US Senate race in New Mexico), all of these states saw their lowest turnout in a federal election since before 1980. Turnout in California and Nevada plummeted to less than 32 percent, falling 15 and almost 10 percentage points, respectively, compared with 2010. And it’s important to note that in all three states, voting is widely accessible, with few ID requirements and multiple options to conveniently vote early or by mail.
So although many of us have worked to strengthen democracy’s foundations and reduce the costs of participating in elections, more must be done to build on that foundation by better demonstrating the benefits of voting. In the past, campaigns and those encouraging civic engagement have focused on placing hot-button issues or charismatic candidates on the ballot to increase voter enthusiasm; at times, this approach has yielded short-term gains. Barack Obama’s campaign in particular was adept at turning out voters for a single race—the presidential contest of 2008. But these increases have not been maintained through other election cycles, or even in legislative and local contests on the same ballot in the same election. After the increase in turnout in 2008, turnout in 2012 was lower nationally than in 2004.
One challenge in getting more citizens to vote is that the analysis of the nonvoting population is often oversimplified. Approximately 40 percent of eligible voters never vote, and no one reason can explain why. About another 20 percent of the eligible electorate only votes once every four years, in presidential elections. These individuals are a complex and diverse lot, and their reasons for not voting, or voting very rarely, vary widely: Some need only a nudge to vote, while others are dead set against voting. Research indicates, however, that barriers to voting are not holding back the vast majority of nonvoters. Rather, a mix of dissatisfaction with the political system, a lack of understanding of government and elections, and other factors seem to depress the perceived benefit of voting for many of these non-voters.
To increase voter turnout, other approaches are needed—ones intended not to inflame passions about what may be at stake in a particular election but instead to connect more voters to the process of voting and to the value of participating in our democracy. Identifying promising strategies will require new research, data, and experimentation designed to increase baseline turnout for Americans in all elections. Tools and methods need to be developed to allow nonpartisan civic engagement groups and voter outreach campaigns—at all levels, including state legislative and local races—to efficiently marshal their resources to use the best messages and modes of contact to connect a variety of citizens with the act of voting.
Here are two things that can be done to increase voter turnout:
- Begin with research—most importantly, comprehensive surveys of the eligible electorate that never or rarely votes to assess the attitudes and behaviors of these potential voters. Data would then be used to attempt to create a segmentation of these individuals, grouping the nonvoting population by the factors that depress the perceived value of voting, and to develop messages and modes of contact (in-person, phone, email, text, and social media, alone, or in combination) that would be most likely to resonate with each segment of the nonvoting citizenry.
- Then, using the information gained from the research and surveys, create field experiments that test the effectiveness of various messages and modes of contact on nonvoters, maintaining a randomized control group that would receive no encouragement to vote. Experiments could also test specific hypotheses, such as whether it is possible to move individuals who have previously voted only in presidential elections toward voting more regularly.
The result of this could be a toolkit for those seeking to engage citizens in the democratic process to reach potential voters in a highly efficient, cost-effective way.
The toolkit could be further used efficiently to target potential voters to move them into the next level of engagement: those that never vote could be persuaded to vote in a presidential election, while those who only vote in presidential elections could be targeted to vote in midterms, etc. The results could be dramatic. If only 1 in 10 nonvoters became routine voters, baseline turnout in presidential elections would grow by 4 percentage points. The impacts could be even more keenly felt in midterm and primary elections, in which most eligible voters don’t participate. Persuading 1 in 10 nonvoters to vote in these contests could increase turnout by 6 to 8 percentage points.
A healthy democracy requires that elected representatives be responsive and accountable to their constituents. However, when a small minority of Americans is electing our officials and an even smaller proportion is nominating candidates through the primary process, accountability and democracy suffer. State and local election offices need to continue improving the nuts and bolts of our election system, but it is a shared responsibility of all those who aspire to contribute to our civic life to reverse the troubling decline in voter turnout. To do so will require a new research approach to fill the gaps in our knowledge of why citizens fail to cast ballots—and what can be done to reverse this downward spiral.