If you meet three Americans who are of voting age and are eligible under the laws of the state in which they reside to cast ballots, two of them did not do so in the 2014 election.
In most states it is likely that the two nonvoters will be younger and poorer than the one voter—meaning that a small, older and relatively elite minority is defining not just the results of elections but the direction of the United States.
As concerns regarding the state of the nation go, this is a big one. And it ought to inspire not just complaints—as have been aired since the election—but calls to action.
According to United States Elections Project estimates, just 36.3 percent of eligible voters bothered to participate in elections where members of the US House and Senate, most governors and most state legislators and thousands of local officials were chosen. The nation’s most populous states, all of which had full federal and state ballots, saw dismal turnout: 28.5 percent in Texas, 28.8 percent in New York, 31.8 percent in California.
Only seven states (Maine, Wisconsin, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota and Iowa) saw turnout in excess of 50 percent. In contrast, elections in Germany regularly see turnout in excess of 70 percent, in Scandinavia above 80 percent, in Belgium above 90 percent. “The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance ranks the United States 120th in the world for average turnout,” noted Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Political systems differ from country to country, and so comparisons are tricky. But some patterns are clear. Unlike countries with high turnout rates, for instance, elections in the United States are more dramatically expensive, just as campaigns in the United States run dramatically longer. Because of the declining circumstance of commercial media (especially newspapers) and the chronic underfunding of public and community broadcasting outlets, US voters have less access to consistent and high-quality coverage of campaigns.
Additionally, many US states have seen the enactment of laws that make it harder to vote, and the Supreme Court only made matters worse with its 2014 decision to undermine the Voting Rights Act. “The reason politicians ignore so many of the working poor is that they don’t vote,” argues The Root’s Danielle C. Belton. “And the reason so many of the working poor don’t vote is that certain politicians have made sure it’s as inconvenient as possible for them.”
It is not particularly difficult to identify factors that depress turnout. Nor is it difficult to recognize that that the crisis is worsening. States and communities across the country reported record low turnout in 2014 primaries and the general election. Overall, US turnout was the worst since 1942, when World War II presented unique challenges.
What is necessary now is a recognition that the crisis will continue to worsen if we do not take appropriate actions to assure that elections are reflective of the will of the whole people.
Some of the reforms that are needed involve significant transformations of our rules and structures for funding campaigns—including a constitutional amendment to restore the authority of citizens and the elected representatives to organize elections in which votes matter more than dollars. Changes must be made in order to fill the journalistic void by sustaining and expanding independent media. There are also arguments to be made for major structural shifts. For instance, the group FairVote proposes a number “systemic electoral reforms that reverse the contextual reasons for low turnout. “
*Fair Representation Voting for legislative elections would allow for outcomes that better represent the diverse beliefs of the electorate, and could therefore combat the low voter turnout that we see in many winner-take-all plurality districts, where choices are limited.
*A National Popular Vote (NPV) for president, which would make every vote in every state equally valuable in every election, would expand presidential campaigns from just ten states to all 50. As voter turnout is markedly lower in states that receive no presidential campaign attention, the reallocation of campaign resources to include non-battleground states would likely increase turnout in those states.
*Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) for other single seat offices like mayor and governor would better represent the views of third party and independent voters, as more candidates would be inclined to run. Therefore, voters who might not feel that their views are represented in a two-party race would turn out to the polls to support their preferred candidate.
*Universal Voter Registration would modernize voter registration in the United States, making government responsible for maintaining accurate and complete voter rolls, shifting our system from its current opt-in structure to an opt-out structure.
These are all sound proposals, and some of them have been implemented with considerable success in communities across the country. Taking them national involves organizing and hard work.
But is there something more we can do right now—something that should be easy and without significant controversy?
How about making Election Day a holiday? That’s hardly a radical idea. Countries around the world schedule elections on weekends or recognize weekdays when elections are held as a holiday. Louisiana usually votes on Saturdays. And roughly a dozen states and jurisdictions give some recognition to Election Day as a holiday. So why not take the idea national?
That’s what Senator Sanders is proposing. Even before November 4, the independent from Vermont argued that, as part of a broader effort to generate the largest possible turnout, “Election Day should be a national holiday so that everyone has the opportunity to vote.”
After the turnout crisis became evident—even in his own traditionally high-turnout state of Vermont, where voter participation fell to 43.7 percent, the worst rate on record—Sanders acted. He proposed the “Democracy Day Act of 2014”—a simple piece of legislation that would designate each and every federal Election Day as a public holiday.
“We should not be satisfied with a ‘democracy’ in which more than 60 percent of our people don’t vote and some 80 percent of young people and low-income Americans fail to vote,” says Sanders. “We can and must do better than that. While we must also focus on campaign finance reform and public funding of elections, establishing an Election Day holiday would be an important step forward.”