Who Votes? Who Doesn't?
Some groups of Americans are more likely to vote than others. The most likely of all are those over 45 with a college education who earn at least $25,000 a year. The poor are less likely to vote, as are non-union blue collar workers and ethnic minorities. Women are slightly more likely to vote in federal elections than men. In the 1996 presidential election, only 28 percent of eligible Hispanics voted, compared to 52 percent of blacks and 59 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Some of the least likely voters are the young. In the 1996 presidential election, less than 35 percent of the 18- to 24-year-olds went to the polls. In 1999, the Project Vote Smart General Population and Youth Survey on Civic Engagement reported that only 45 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds in contrast to 64 percent of older respondents indicated that they "definitely" would vote in the 2000 elections.
This decline has disturbed and puzzled many political scientists. Throughout the 1800s, about 80 percent of those qualified actually voted. Toward the end of the century, many states set up obstacles to voting such as poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements, and annual registration. These obstacles were often directed against Southern blacks, but they also discouraged many Northern white workers who were recent immigrants and spoke little English. Voting levels went down from 79 percent in 1896 to 49 percent in 1920.
This decline was understandable, but later changes in voting patterns have been more puzzling. Voting has gone up and down by small amounts in different eras. It has sunk to 49 percent in the 1996 presidential election and rose slightly to 51 percent in 2000.
There are two competing theories for this behavior—one that looks for the causes in the voters themselves and another that looks to the political institutions.
Looking at the Voters
Some political scientists have noted that people who are most likely to vote tend to be rooted in their communities. They feel they can influence the government and they find out about the candidates and issues.
Sociologist Ruy Teixeira, the author of Why Americans Don't Vote, has identified a number of possible reasons for the voting decline. The baby boom generation and the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18, have greatly increased the pool of young voters. The young are less rooted in a community and less likely to vote.
Teixeira has also argued that people no longer identify themselves strongly with political parties. A full third of registered voters are now independents. And Americans seem less interested in political affairs, as shown by a big drop in newspaper reading.
Looking at the Institutions
A competing view is offered by sociologists Frances Piven and Richard Cloward, who have written another book with the same title, Why Americans Don't Vote. They link the causes of the decline directly to the bureaucratic obstacles to voting. When Americans are registered to vote, they usually do vote 80 percent of the time. But cumbersome registration requirements stand in the way.
Piven and Cloward argue that once the poor and minorities were discouraged from voting, politicians no longer had to address their concerns. It became a vicious circle—once politicians wouldn't speak to their needs, these groups became even less interested in politics.
Other industrial democracies, such as Sweden or France, have much higher registration rates and higher voting rates. Piven and Cloward point out that in those countries the government and political parties actively seek out people to register.
Is Easier Registration the Answer?
In 1989, the House of Representatives began to consider some measures to make voter registration easier. The result was the National Voter Registration Act (H. R. 2190). This law would require all the states—except North Dakota, which does not require any voter registration—to:
(1) establish a system of registration-by-mail, which already existed in half the states;
(2) register people to vote at certain public and private agencies like libraries, unemployment offices, and banks;
(3) make registration automatic when an eligible voter applies for or renews a driver's license. This so-called "motor-voter" method is used in about a dozen states. It is strongly supported by MTV's "Rock the Vote" campaign.
Supporters of H.R. 2190, mostly Democrats, argued that the measure would help register 90 percent of all eligible Americans. This could produce up to 70 million new voters. Opponents of the bill, mostly Republicans, objected on the grounds that it would dictate to the states how they must register their citizens. Some predicted that multiple registrations would contribute to fraud, but the bill's sponsors argued that states that have easy registration now have shown no increase in fraud.
In February 1990, the National Voter Registration Act passed the House, but was killed in the Senate by a Republican filibuster. The bill was reintroduced in 1991. This time it passed both houses of Congress but was vetoed by President George H.W. Bush on July 2, 1992. Bush criticized the bill as a costly and constitutionally questionable federal regulation that would increase the risk of election fraud.
The 103rd Congress, however, passed the national Voter Registration Act of 1993. President Bill Clinton signed the act into law on May 20, 1993. The law, which applies to all federal elections, took effect on January 1, 1995. Although it is impossible to tell whether easier registration will encourage more voting in the future, statistics reveal that only 63 percent of eligible Americans registered to vote in 1996, down from 78 percent in 1992.
For Discussion and Writing
- Why don't people vote? List as many causes as you can for the decrease in voter turnout since 1960. What do you believe is the main cause?
- What do you think the consequences might be to American democracy if the trend of declining voter turnout continues into the next century?
- Some people argue that increasing voter turnout is a good idea since elected officials would then pay less attention to special interests and more attention to the needs of society as a whole. Other people argue that increasing voter turnout is a bad idea since this would bring to the polls vast numbers of politically ignorant people. What do you think?
For Further Information
Voter Turnout Statistics on recent U.S. elections and links to other sites.
Voter Turnout Charts of voter turnout for all U.S. presidential elections from 1946 to present.
Voter Turnout by Race/Ethnicity The statistics for voter registration and turnout by race/ethnicity for all federal elections from 1972 to 1996.
Voter Turnout by Age The statistics for voter registration and turnout by age for all federal elections from 1972 to 1996.
Voter Turnout by Gender The statistics for voter registration and turnout by gender for all federal elections from 1972 to 1996.
Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2000 A report from the Census Bureau. PDF file.
A C T I V I T Y
Getting Out the Vote
A. The following methods of registering to vote have all been proposed to increase the turnout in American elections. Meet in small groups and rank these methods from 1 to 4 with 1 being most desirable and 4 being least desirable.
___require no registration of voters (now only in North Dakota)
___ same-day registration at the polls on election day (currently in Maine, Minnesota, and Wisconsin)
___the federal government issuing a national voter registration card to every eligible person and keeping track of residency through post office change-of-address forms (similar to the method used in most other democratic nations; some countries even fine citizens for not voting)
___federal grants to the states which would then determine how best to increase voter registration
B. Each group should prepare to explain its number 1 and number 4 ranking.