Turnout in the 2008 presidential election was 61.7 percent of eligible voters.  There are still significant numbers of nonvoters.  America claims to be "the world's greatest democracy" so the question must be asked, can we do better?
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Voters and Non-Voters: Can We Do Better? 
The campaigns, parties, aligned organizations, and organizations targeting specific demographic groups all work to encourage people to vote.  The debacle of Florida in 2000 reminded voters that voting can indeed make a difference.  2004 saw the highest turnout since 1968, with 60.7 percent of eligible citizens voting according to the United States Election Project at George Mason University.  2008 surpassed 2004 as 61.7 percent of elegible voters turned out.  Four states had turnout of greater than 70 percent of eligible voters: Minnesota (78.2%), Wisconsin (72.5%), Maine (71.4%) and New Hampshire (71.3%); at the other extreme were Hawaii (50.5%), West Virginia (50.6%) and Arkansas (53.4%).

There are still a large number of non-voters.  Many reasons have been advanced to explain why so many Americans decline to engage in the most basic act of civic participation.

First, many Americans say they are too busy.  A 1998 Census Bureau study found that among those who were registered but did not vote in the 1996 campaign, 21.5 percent said they did not vote "because they could not take time off of work or school or because they were too busy."

Complex voter registration requirements were thought to be one cause deterring people from participating, and in 1993 Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (Motor Voter) to make it easier for people to register.  However, simplifying registration has not improved the voting picture. 

In an effort to address the voter turnout problem, individual states have been trying measures to make it easier to vote, such as early voting, voting by mail, and liberal absentee ballot rules.  Some observers have suggested that weekend voting be implemented nationally.  Why Tuesday?, a 501(c)(3) organization, formed in 2005 to advance weekend voting and was active during the 2008 cycle.

Another remedy may be to improve or expand the choices available to voters.  Competitive races create greater interest and boost participation.  Credible third party challenges, notably Ross Perot's candidacy in 1992 and Jesse Ventura's gubernatorial campaign in 1998, have brought high turnout.  A number of states have extremely restrictive ballot access laws, and changes to these laws could introduce additional viewpoints and enliven the debate.  Likewise, different election models such as instant runoff voting and proportional voting rather than winner-take-all in legislative races may help to empower voters.

Another possible explanation for low voter turnout is the the tone of campaigns.  Poll-driven rhetoric begins to sound the same after a while, thirty-second spots are not a very effective way to conduct a reasoned discourse, and attacks are not likely to encourage people to turn out at the polls.

Early in the 2008 cycle a couple of efforts emerged to engage citizens in ways that went beyond traditional Democrat/Republican politics.  Unity08, launched in May 2006, sought to hold "the first-ever online primary to pick a bipartisan Unity Ticket."  Additionally, in June 2007 a number of groups started work to hold a "National Presidential Caucus" on December 7, 2007.  Organizers envisaged "thousands of local, self-organized, web-enabled, and face-to-face gatherings across the country" in an event that is "part mass straw poll, part mass focus group" and "will advance discussion and deliberation on the issues and candidates."  Neither of these efforts was successful however.  (1, 2)

There are many groups seeking to turn out voters. Besides the parties' and campaigns' efforts to bring out their own supporters, a host of nonpartisan groups have sought to raise the turnout of voters.  Efforts range from 30-second public service announcements (PSAs) that contain slick get-out-the-vote messages to grassroots drives in which people go door-to-door in targeted neighborhoods.  Person to person contact, particularly from family, friends and neighbors is especially effective.  In 2008, ACORN, which seeks to register voters in low- and moderate-income communities, achieved considerable noteriety for a number of examples of voter registration fraud, but these incidents should not tar the work of dozens of other groups.  

Finally, it must be remembered that voting is only a first step, a minimum level of participation.  The real challenge is not just to increase the number of voters, but to ensure citizens are informed about the choices they make. 

Voter Turnout in Recent Presidential Elections
Year Eligible to Vote Total Vote % Eligible Voted
2004 201,541,000 122,265,430 60.7
2000 194,285,000 105,399,313 54.3
1996 187,033,000 96,277,634 51.5
1992 179,775,000 104,428,377 58.1
1988 172,540,000 91,594,805 53.1
1984 165,341,000 92,653,000 56.0
1980 158,143,000 86,497,000 54.7
1976 147,980,000 81,603,000 55.1
1972 137,318,000 77,625,000 56.6
Source: Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. 
Register and Vote!  
Project Vote Smart
League of Women Voters
Federal Voting Assistance Program
Southwest Voter Registration Education Project  +
National Coalition on Black Civic Participation  +
APIAVote  +
National Congress of American Indians' Native Vote  +
New Voters Project  +
Rock The Vote
National Student/Parent Mock Election
Kids Voting USA  +
Women's Voices, Women Vote
The National Coalition for the Homeless' You Don't Need a Home to Vote
Project Vote

Overviews of the Electorate (2008)
William C. Velasquez Institute (WCVI) - "The Latino Vote in 2008: Trends and Characteristics"

CIRCLE Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University - "Turnout by Education, Race and Gender and Other 2008 Youth Voting Statistics"

Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies - "Blacks and the 2008 Elections: A Preliminary Analysis"

Center for the Study of the American Electorate - "African-Americans, Anger, Fear and Youth Propel Turnout to Highest Level Since 1960" (Dec. 17, 2008)

Overviews of the Electorate (2004)

2004 edition of this page
United States Election Assistance Commission "2004 Election Day Survey" (September 2005)
Census Bureau Report "Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2004" (May 26, 2005)
Committee for the Study of the American Electorate "Turnout Exceeds Optimistic Predictions" (Jan. 14, 2005) [PDF]
Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies "The Black Vote in 2004"
Pew Hispanic Center "Hispanics and the 2004 Election" (June 27, 2005)
Vanishing Voter Project at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy (John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University)
   -Thomas E. Patterson.  "Young Voters and the 2004 Election."
The American National Election Studies (ANES) "Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior"
Professor Michael McDonald (George Mason University): United States Election Project

Overviews of the Electorate (2000)
Census Bureau Report "Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2000" (Feb. 2002)
Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies "The Black Vote in 2000"
Census Bureau Facts (Oct. 23, 2000 release)
Census Bureau Projections of Voting Age Population (July 31, 2000 release)
Youth Vote 2000 ""Getting Out the Youth Vote: Results from Randomized Field Experiments" (June 12, 2001)
Third Millennium's "Neglection 2000"
Kennedy School's "The Vanishing Voter Project"
National Election Studies NES "Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior"
Committee for the Study of the American Electorate
Federal Election Commission's "About Elections and Voting"
Census Bureau Report "Voting and Registration in the Election of November 1996"
Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers
Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies "The Black Vote in '98"
National Association of Secretaries of State's New Millennium Project (Youth Attitudes)

Making It Easier to Vote

  • The National Voter Registration Act of 1993--"Motor Votor"

  • FEC's Report "The Impact of the National Voter Registration Act on Federal Elections 1999-2000"
    See also: Election Reform

    Increasing Competition and Quality
    Ballot Access News
    Center for Responsive Politics
    Fair Vote

    Polls: Snapshots of the Electorate
    washingtonpost.com's Data Directory

    Copyright © 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action