Election Day Preparations Reach New Heights, but Will Voters Turn Out?

If there is a checklist for Election Day preparations, policy makers, candidates, and voter registration advocates have covered many bases for 2010: state legislation has moved to improve (or sometimes impede) voting rights; voter registration drives are technologically advancing; and campaign spending is reaching record heights. But, a major component of elections—voter outreach and voter turnout—remains to be seen. If 2008 turnout is an indicator for voter participation in the upcoming major elections, would this be an opportunity for the electorate to finally close its representational gaps?

Despite increases by historically underrepresented constituencies in 2008–including very low-income Americans, Americans of color, and particularly young minority voters–the fact remains that voter turnout is consistently lower in mid-term election years. Voter turnout in recent years has consistently dropped an average of 15 percentage points between presidential and mid-term election years.

A recent U.S. Census Bureau analysis of registration and turnout for the 2008 elections found a few trends in the state of the electorate and potential issues that surround voting access that advocates, lawmakers, and candidates may want to consider before, during, and after the elections in order to facilitate a healthier democracy.

While it is expected that the number of registered voters exceeds the number of voters who ultimately cast ballots in any given election, the Census actually explores some of the reasoning behind this fact. And the reason does not always lie with the voter: of the 15.2 million registered citizens that did not vote in 2008, about six percent (or 900,000 voter registrants) stated that they had problems with their voter registration, which prevent them from voting. This could be attributed to a multitude of reasons, including improper voter purging; voter registration deadlines that prevent a transient voter from re-registering in time; and even typographical errors by the registrant or the election official when processing the application.

In recent years, state legislators and advocates have developed measures to improve voter registration, from access to administration. This includes a wave of online voter registration bills passing in 2009, allowing citizens with Motor Vehicles Division records to safely complete and submit voter registration applications via Internet, theoretically eliminating some of the typical culprits of voter registration problems, including postal service issues and the aforementioned clerical errors.

Advocates and tech companies are taking this effort a step further. In Early May, California’s Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters became the first in the nation to accept electronic signatures for voter registrations from a handful of San Jose State University students via electronic mobile device, according to Government Technology.  The report also featured Project Vote’s own electronic voter registration application, which will debut in coming weeks.

The greatest emphasis on improving voter registration systems in 2010 has mainly focused on one of the nation’s historically underrepresented groups, which has increasingly proven itself as a key player in democracy: Youth.

In 2008, youth voter participation surged among historically underrepresented youth of color, particularly in the South and West, according to both the Census analysis and Project Vote’s 2009 report, Representational Bias in the 2008 Electorate. In 2010, a number of states have passed or are considering legislation to engage young citizens before they are out of high school and of voting age. Preregistration laws have passed in Rhode Island and Maryland and related bills are currently pending in Delaware, Massachusetts, and Michigan.

While “access” has been the main argument for election reforms—including the positive youth voting measures like preregistration as well as highly controversial voter ID laws—the Census analysis brings to light access issues for another group: the disabled.

According to the Census, a sizeable portion of the population states that an illness or disability prevents them from registering or voting. As we note in Representational Bias, the 2008 survey was the first year in which the Census included six new questions on disability status, and that having a disability tracks close with stating that an illness or disability was a barrier to registering or voting. This new data collection can be used by lawmakers and advocates to help reduce this apparent barrier to democracy.

Expanding the electorate to include and mobilize all voters is no small feat. Despite increases in voter turnout among underrepresented citizens, the state of the electorate is still unstable. It takes the collective effort of voters, lawmakers, and advocates to see to it that democracy is accessible and represents all Americans.

Tags: voter participation, voter mobilization, Election, Project Vote (all tags)

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