Low Voter Turnout: Why So Absent America?

Steve Pope/Getty Images

Steve Pope/Getty Images

Now that elections are over and Republicans have won the majority in Congress with a resounding and clear flurry of red votes, the discussion has turned to voting turnout; in particular, the particularly poor showing of voter turnout seen this midterm. According to the United States Elections Project (USEP), the voter turnout for this year’s November elections was at a mere 36.3%, just over a third of the eligible American population.

While midterm elections are well-known for having poor voter turnout compared to presidential elections (part of the reason Democrats tend not to do very well), this year’s participation numbers were particularly low. By particularly low, I mean they haven’t been this bad since 1789, based on data from the USEP, shown in the graph below. National Turnout Rates

The graph’s long view of turnout makes for something of a misleading visual, but focus in on recent history in the 1900s and 2000s. Time puts things in perspective rather nicely when it said recently “the last time voter turnout for a national election was as low as it was on November 4, Hitler was still in power, and Mitch McConnell was only nine months old.” On the one hand, this poor showing may be a symptom of bitter and skeptical voters who feel they’ve been disillusioned with Congress and doubt the current structure’s ability to get things done no matter the results of midterm elections. It could also be a matter of frustration with the Obama Administration, with current living standards or with the political atmosphere in general these days. This has been a rather negative, partisan, and gridlocked year, stretching back to the government shutdown, rough Obamacare rollout, and scandals across the political spectrum.

If people feel that politics as they know it is broken, voting begins to feel painfully unhelpful. Conversely, change cannot be enacted without trying. While voting can be understandably difficult for people without the time, money, or ability to leave work or family, it’s a vital and proud part of our democratic government — just to insert a degree of mandatory finger-wagging. On the other hand, not voting may be the right decision; apathetic voters don’t vote, and apathy can certainly be created by enough anger and hopelessness in a population.

Perhaps Washington D.C. will make note of that; perhaps they won’t, but President Barack Obama is at least dispensing rhetoric in line with the former. “To everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you. To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you too,” said Obama, “All of us have to give more Americans a reason to feel like the ground is stable beneath their feet, that the future is secure, that there’s a path for young people to succeed, and that folks here in Washington are concerned about them.” A more cynical reading of this commentary from the president might suggest he mentions the poor turnout and sentiment from Americans who didn’t vote as a way of reminding Americans that while Republicans took the majority, they only did so with a small percentage of the vote. Democratic losses may not have been a reflection of his low approval, or low approval for Democratic candidates, but rather an incomplete picture of only some of the nation’s viewpoints.

Others might argue that only voters who were fired up enough against President Obama, his policy, or Democrats showed up to vote, while the usual Democratic voters might have been just unhappy enough to choose non-support of their own party. This was certainly the case of Julie Votaw, a voter in Concord, N.H., who told AP “I want to send a statement to the Obama Administration that I’m very upset. I just feel like no one is in control.” In Virginia and New Jersey at least, CNN’s exit polls showed that economic views were highly negative, with 87% of voters saying they were worried about the U.S.’s economic direction. Obama’s approval was also quite low there, significant especially for New Jersey which is usually strongly leftist during presidential elections.

One thing is certain, in 2016 when presidential elections hit and the executive branch’s party membership is up for grabs, voter engagement is likely to blossom, but the nation still has a long time before then and a great number of major reform needs — changing the tax code and reforming immigration policy in particular. These will require cooperation between parties and branches of government, and the low voter turnout may have impacted how that will proceed.

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