Americans just do not like to vote.
For all of the talk of American democracy and the importance of the ballot, a strikingly small number of eligible Americans show up at the polls each November. Presidential elections, of course, see the largest level of turnout as a percentage of the voting age population. But for many Americans, that is it. The only time they see the inside of a voting booth is in a year that is divisible by four.
Take Pennsylvania, for example. In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, about 64 percent of eligible Pennsylvanians showed up at the polls. That was a couple points above the nationwide turnout of about 62 percent.
Just two years later, those numbers were down to 42 percent for Pennsylvania and 41 percent for the United States. That election, significantly, decided which party would control not only the House of Representatives, but numerous state legislatures and governor’s seats. Last year, turnout in Pennsylvania dropped even lower, to 32 percent.
The Keystone State is no outlier; most states see similarly dismal figures. Why, then, is voter turnout so much lower in midterm and off-year elections? To simplify: the president. Or, rather, the absence of a presidential candidate on the ballot. The president is the only official elected nationwide in the United States. Campaigns for the office are fought over high-stakes national and global issues. The media cover the proceedings extensively.
And the perception that there will be relatively high voter participation, possibly reinforced by friendly conversation and media coverage, could have the effect of turning out more voters simply due to social pressure. That is, people go to the polls because they do not want to be the person caught not voting.*
All of this can make presidential elections seem more relevant than off-year or midterm elections. But these latter elections — which generally feature many state and local positions — often have a direct impact on voters’ everyday lives. State and local governments are the ‘boots on the ground.’ They are responsible for keeping your neighborhood safe, paving your streets, picking up your trash, educating your children, providing for poor, zoning your community, and countless other services that affect your daily life. As Hurricane Sandy has recently reminded many Americans, state and local governments also prepare for and respond to natural disasters.
Not only that, but these elections also have far-reaching political ramifications. I wrote about just such a situation in a 2011 election op-ed:
[I]n 2009, only 21 percent of registered Pennsylvanians cast their ballots. The majority of those select few chose Republican candidate Joan Orie Melvin as the next justice of the PA Supreme Court, solidifying a 4-3 Republican majority on the bench.
This year, as in the past, the Supreme Court was called upon to choose the tie-breaking member of the commission that redraws the legislative districts in the state every decade. The resulting map was a patchwork of gerrymandering and political protection submitted on a party-line vote in the Republicans’ favor. By carefully designating which group of voters elects which representative, this map will likely dictate the outcome of Pennsylvania’s elections for years.
And it had the potential to dictate the 2012 presidential election, as well. That year, Pennsylvania Republicans (swept into office in a midterm election) introduced a bill that would have changed the way the Commonwealth distributes its electoral votes for president. Instead of following the “majority wins” system that nearly all other states use, this plan would have split its votes according to Congressional districts that the Republicans themselves drew. To put that into perspective, had this system been in place in 1960, Richard Nixon would have bested John F. Kennedy for the presidency.
Midterm and off-year elections can have huge ramifications. Keep that in mind for 2013, and beyond.
*As an aside, Pennsylvania actually has a “Voter Hall of Fame,” where it recognizes those citizens who have cast their ballots every November for 50 consecutive years or more. If you have not gotten started on that yet, now might be a good time.
Michael J. Gaudini, “Corbett-Pileggi election plan bad for democracy,” Main Line Times.
Michael J. Gaudini, “‘Like’ the Vote,” Diniverse Major.
Michael J. Gaudini, “Think Off-Year Elections are Unimportant? Think Again,” Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch.
“United States Election Project: Voter Turnout,” George Mason University.
“Voter Hall of Fame,” Pennsylvania Department of State.