Voter Turnout: More Important than You Think
By Deborah M. Figart
Voter turnout in Scotland was 85% in the September 18, 2014 election referendum on Scottish independence. Scotland voted 55%-45% to remain in the United Kingdom. Even in a quadrennial presidential election in the United States, voter turnout is typically 20-25 percentage points lower. According to the Center for Voting and Democracy, U.S. voter turnout is well below other democracies. The Center’s comparative data show that the leading industrialized countries have turnout rates of about 70%. In the U.S., about 60% of the voting eligible population votes during presidential election years, and about 40% votes during midterm elections. Some countries with compulsory voting have almost 90% voter turnout.
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance has a useful web tool called a “Voter Turnout Analyzer” that illustrates statistics on voter participation around the world. You can generate your own comparisons and graphs to use for discussion, other educational purposes, and/or social media. You can compare individual countries against one another or regions of the globe. I wanted to see where the United States stacked up against other regions. What I found was disappointing. In parliamentary (non-presidential) elections, U.S. voter turnout, with few exceptions, was lower than turnout in Asia, Africa, and South America. If you don’t think comparing older and newer democracies is a fair comparison, what about Europe? Again, Europe’s voter turnout is much higher than the United States, closer to the greater global average.
I have heard cynics say that “They are all politicians. What difference does it make?” When we cast our votes, we are not simply voting for one person. Take the U.S. presidential election, for example. U.S. Presidents make thousands of appointments—judicial and executive branch appointments—like Supreme Court and federal judges, cabinet secretaries and assistant secretaries, ambassadors, directors of regulatory agencies, the chair and members of the Federal Reserve Board, to name a few.
On November 7, 2000, the U.S. election for President of the United States was decided by a mere 537 votes in the State of Florida (0.0092% of the Florida vote). Candidate Al Gore had won the popular vote: 48.4 percent to 47.9%. The electoral college majority was up for grabs. After a partial recount in Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that George W. Bush won the State of Florida and therefore the presidency by winning the electoral college by a vote of 271 to 266.
In 1948, in the democratic primary for U.S. Senate in Texas, candidate Lyndon B. Johnson won by just 87 votes. Would he have served as Vice President and then President after the assassination of John F. Kennedy if he had lost that 1948 election? In 2008, then-comedian Al Franken won his U.S. Senate seat by 312 votes. Also in 2008, Rick Santorum won the Republican caucuses in the State of Iowa by a whisker, 34 votes. On primary night, Mitt Romney had originally been declared the winner. And governors, too, have been elected by very narrow margins. In 2004, Christine Gregoire was elected Governor of the State of Washington by only 133 votes.
In elections across the country for mayors, commissioners, sheriffs, town supervisors, freeholders, and even state assembly or senate candidates, a candidate can be declared the winner by just one vote. One vote. That’s all it takes.
Voting matters, according to Project Vote, a national non-profit organization that works to empower, educate, and mobilize low-income, minority, youth, and other marginalized and under-represented voters. The right public policies at the state level can make voting more accessible in our modern world. The wrong public policies increase barriers to voting.
Don’t use the excuse that you do not have enough information about the candidates. Tools such as VoteSmart.org, a website by an independent non-profit organization, enable you to search the voting records and positions of your federal and state representatives and their opposing candidates. You also see how groups from Clean Water Action to the New Jersey Taxpayer Alliance rated the candidates.
The first step is registering to vote. The next step is to become a regular seen at the polls. Whatever your politics, the next midterm congressional election and state elections are Tuesday, November 4, 2014. Election information for candidates and voters is always provided by the New Jersey Department of State. In New Jersey, there are two public questions on the ballot that could amend the New Jersey State Constitution, if passed by a majority of voters.
Ballot questions are just as important as voting for candidates. Ballot Question No. 1 is an amendment to allow a court to order pretrial detention of a person in a criminal case. That is, no possibly of bail. Ballot Question No. 2 would dedicate state revenue for open space, farmland, and historic preservation, and change existing revenue dedication for water programs, underground storage tanks, and hazardous site cleanups. A ballot question next year could consider whether the state should allow casinos in northern New Jersey.
Get to the polls. Be there, rain or shine. Your vote could be the difference.