Can Anything Be Done to Increase Voter Participation?

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Originally published 8-19-05

Mr. Patterson is the Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The article is derived from his recently published book, "The Vanishing Voter" (Knopf, 2002).

Where Have All the Voters Gone? Series by Thomas Patterson
Part 1: Where Have All the Voters Gone?
Part 2: Why Do So Many Americans Hate Politics?
Part 3: Why Is News So Negative These Days?
Part 4: Why the Re-election of Incumbents Year After Year Is a Threat to Democracy
Part 5: Can Anything Be Done to Increase Voter Participation?

In last week's fourth installment of this five-part series, I discussed how changes in the electoral competition have contributed to the decline in voter involvement during the past four decades. The decline includes sharp drops in primary and general election turnout and even steeper drops in attention to televised debates and other forms of election communication.

In this concluding installment, I describe a few of the steps that could be taken to enhance participation. Evidence for my argument comes from the Vanishing Voter Project that I co-directed at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy during the 2000 campaign. Through weekly national surveys, we interviewed nearly 100,000 Americans during the course of the campaign to discover why they are disengaging from elections.

Electoral Reform

The developments that have diminished Americans' interest in election politics are deep rooted and unlikely to be reversed easily or soon. The changes identified in the previous installments--the weakening of the political parties, the rise of candidate-centered campaigns, the emergence of a hypercritical press, and the decline in electoral competition--will continue to characterize American politics for years to come. Campaign participation in all its forms, from voting to watching debates, is likely to continue its downward slide.

However, there are some modest adjustments in campaigns that would slow or halt the trend. The broadcast networks could help by restoring some of their cuts in election coverage. None of the 22 televised debates during the 2000 presidential primaries was broadcast in prime time by a major broadcast network. As a result, fewer than two million viewers watched the average debate, which is only a fifth of the audience of the typical prime-time broadcast program. The broadcast networks have also cut their convention coverage to a minimum. Even as late as 1976, each network broadcast about 50 hours of the conventions. In 2000, nine hours was the network average.

Conventions and debates draw citizens to the campaign. They are also the points in the campaign where citizens acquire much of their information about the candidates and issues. However, the audience for these events is affected by the coverage. Cable television does not have the audience delivery capacity of the broadcast networks. The convention audience, for example, tripled in size during the hours of broadcast coverage as opposed to the hours when only cable coverage was available.

The broadcast networks make hundreds of millions of dollars annually from the privilege of operating on the public airwaves. In the past two decades, they have pursued an election-coverage strategy that has placed corporate profits ahead of their public-service obligations. They need to get back in the game. Shorter campaigns would also help. Through the first half of the twentieth century, presidential candidates often did not begin to campaign actively until after the summer conventions. That approach changed completely in 1972 when the parties mandated that delegates be selected through primaries and open caucuses, which pushed the start of the active campaign into the winter months. In our 2000 election surveys, respondents repeatedly expressed displeasure with the campaign's length.

Lengthy campaigns tax voters' attention. Although it might be thought a long campaign would serve citizens' needs by giving them more time to study the candidates, the long campaign actually works against an informed electorate. Most citizens are not psychologically prepared to pay close attention to a campaign when Election Day is months away. Yet, because it has been going on for months, they are also not highly attentive when it is only weeks away. By campaign's end, they will even have forgotten much of what they had learned earlier. In 2000, for example, Americans knew less about George W. Bush's position on gun control in October than they had known in February. Overall, our research indicates that the college-educated electorate of today is no better informed and, by some indicators, is less informed than the high-school-educated electorate of fifty years ago.

Changes in the voting laws would also help. For one thing, polling hours should be extended. Amidst the uproar over ballot irregularities in Florida in 2000, no commentator saw fit to ask why the polls in that state closed at 7 p.m. local time. Florida is one of twenty-six states that shut down their polls before 8 p.m. Not surprisingly, turnout in these states is several percentage points below that of states where the polls are open until 8 p.m. or later. Limits on polling hours go back decades and have been a convenient way to discourage the participation of lower-income workers who are stuck at their jobs during the day. Turnout would likely also increase if Election Day was declared a national holiday, as the National Commission on Federal Election Reform has recommended. The United States is nearly alone among western democracies in holding its elections on a work day instead of on a holiday or weekend. Turnout is depressed by the fact that most people have little choice but to vote before or after work, and then within limited polling hours.

The major legal obstacle to voting, however, is the registration requirement. In nearly all European democracies, registration is virtually automatic. Government assumes the responsibility for placing eligible citizens on the registration rolls. In the United States, the responsibility rests with the individual. Americans no longer have to face the imposing obstacles, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, which once kept many of them from registering. Nevertheless, registration is still a significant barrier to voting. In the 1950s, 90 percent of Americans lived in states that closed their registration rolls two or more weeks in advance of the election. The situation is not much different now. Today, 87 percent live in states that shut down registration two or more weeks before Election Day. Our study of the 2000 campaign found that not even 20 percent of the unregistered citizens in these states were aware of the registration deadline. Some of them, even as the election reached its final days, believed they still had time to register and to vote.

In six states (Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Wyoming), residents can actually wait until the last minute and still participate. These states allow unregistered citizens to register at their local polling place on Election Day. In 2000, turnout was 15 percentage points higher in these states than elsewhere. Although these states have a history of high participation rates, all of them moved up in the turnout rankings after implementing same-day registration. Studies indicate that universal same-day registration could boost turnout nationally by as much as 5 percentage points. Republican lawmakers have opposed Election Day registration, just as for more than a century, as Paul Kleppner documented in his study, they have followed a strategy of selective disenfranchisement. The 1993 Motor Voter Act, for example, was passed despite Republican opposition and then only when Democratic lawmakers agreed to remove automatic registration provisions from the legislation. Even then, Republican governors in seven states refused to implement the Motor Voter Act until forced by legal action to do so. Ironically, our study found that Republicans have gained as many votes as the Democrats from the Motor Voter Act. Even though more of the new registrants have been Democrats, those who have registered Republican are more likely to cast a ballot on Election Day.

Our study also indicates that same-day registration would not disadvantage the GOP. Young adults are particularly likely to make use of Election Day registration, and they tend to be responsive to the political mood of the moment. If Election Day registration had been in place in all states in 2002, Republicans would have gained support. Polls show that young adults in 2002 had a clear-cut preference for Republican congressional candidates. If more of them had voted in 2002, the GOP also would have obtained a long-term benefit. As adults age, they tend to stay loyal to the party they first supported. Structural change by itself will not be enough to turn things around. When turnout dropped sharply in the 1920s, Arthur M. Schlesinger and Erik McKinley Eriksson wrote "no stone should be left unturned" in the effort to lure citizens back to the polls. Today, the schools can do more to give students a decent civic education and to help them register so that the first election upon graduation is a step toward lifelong participation. Other entities-including the churches, the news media, the universities, the nonprofits, unions, and corporations-must also use their power to assist people in the exercise of the vote. For if citizens cannot be encouraged to participate more fully, the nation will face the far greater challenge of how to maintain self-government when people don't vote.

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More Comments:

Kevin Russell Cook - 10/23/2003

Pick a topic in which you are completely disinterested. Got one? Good. Now, tell me just how much you know about it. Likely, it’s not much. And, how so much more true that would be if you picked a topic that you needed to stay current with!

So it is with our general citizenry and their disinterest with most political aspects of current events.
Need proof? Look at the polling figures on the public’s conception of Mr. Saddam Hussein’s involvement with the events of that dark 9/11. Lydia DePillis’ suggestion that we fine non-voters could have been a joke. But even at that, it wasn’t a good one. Legal incentives (or, disincentives) would only dumb us down further and make matters worse (not to mention the impossible challenge of enforcing silly laws like that). But, here’s some humor that might shed a little light.

Let’s mount a public campaign asking people not to vote if they don’t feel well informed. Arguments would go something like this: If you are an ignorant voter why not leave decisions like this up to those who are not so ignorant. If you must vote on a candidate’s smile, how they dress, or their haircut, do the nation a big favor and just stay home!

The inevitable result would be a huge boost in voter turn out. A desirable side benefit might be a needed improvement in the quality of television news.

Lydia DePillis - 2/26/2003

Why not fine people for not voting? This would elevate participation to at least the importance of not speeding or stealing, rather than an optional thing you do if you have time and happen to be near a polling place on voting day. It would also force people to become at least marginally informed about the issues. People may be uninterested, but they are not so callous that they would vote blindly just to keep from paying a fine. Eventually, with kids growing up in an environment of universal participation, they will want to vote of their own accord and the fine could be phased out.

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/17/2002

Some of the suggestions strike me as excellent. I live in Wisconsin, and the election day voting system works pretty well.

Extended hours and a national holiday strike me as equally important. So many people are run ragged by their daily tasks that it is truly difficult to get to the polls at all. A holiday would also signify importance in a way that children would perceive as well as adults.

A shorter election cycle would also be great, but I see little way to influence that. The current system evolved because it provided competitive advantages for some politicians, as noted in an earlier posting. I can think of no legal way to force the winners to drop that, as campaigning is most assuredly a guaranteed right.

Finally, one terrible problem has been the dominance of television in providing civic information. It has never done this job well, and I don't see increasing TV coverage of elections as a solution.

Worse, people voluntarily use television as their primary source of information, even though they do not trust it. That may say more about the low priority of politics than any other single fact.

My main hope, and hope is all that it is, is that the variety of information on the internet will gradually lead more people to look elsewhere to supplement the televised vision of society. That in turn may lead to the more accurate, less cynical view of society that Patterson calls for in an earlier posting.