Why is voter turnout so low? Why don’t people vote?

Another election with lopsided, disappointing results. Not too disappointing for the Koch brothers, who were finally able to buy the U.S. Senate they apparently wanted for their $100 million in dark money from Koch-related groups. But certainly disappointing for the majority of the American people who, in opinion poll after opinion poll, list the things they want the government to work on and fix, like immigration reform, health care, and the economy as a whole. And those items don’t seem to be high on the checklist of what is now the majority party in Congress — they’re already talking again about repealing the Affordable Care Act, as if the 50-plus votes the House has taken haven’t been enough. So much for cooperation.

It was not a friendly election map for Democrats, and voter suppression tactics passed by Republican-led legislatures in some states surely led to lower turnout in some areas. There has been ample anecdotal evidence of people who couldn’t vote because they didn’t have the correct form of ID. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Let’s do a breakdown of the electorate in the Nov. 4 election. To be sure, it’s too early for a complete look, but there are some startling numbers and facts.

First of all, the electorate was OLDER than usual. This chart from NBC News shows a stark contrast between older and younger voters in the last several elections:


So older voters made up 37 percent of the electorate, while voters younger than 30 made up only 12 percent — the same percentage in the last three midterms (other sources gave a figure of 13 percent). In presidential years, younger voters are more engaged; in midterms, not so much.

Why is that? The lines are actually shorter during midterm elections. Ballots may be shorter, too; activists in some states load up on ballot initiatives during presidential years to drive people to the polls and to gain their votes when they’re actually AT the polls.

On election night, I was interrupted in my return-watching (I am a self-admitted political junkie, after all) by a call from a young woman asking for donations to my college alma mater. I listened for about 30 seconds before I finally politely told her that the university should send me a request in the mail like they do every year; I always send them a check then.

“Besides, you really shouldn’t be calling on election night — people might be watching the returns,” I said.

“Oh — yeah,” she answered vaguely. “The election.” Guess she didn’t make it to a polling place that day or vote absentee. Too busy binge-watching Parks and Recreation or Brooklyn Nine-Nine? I saw a statistic that more young adults watched reruns of The Big Bang Theory than watched returns on election night.

According to an online article in U.S. News and World Report, average voter turnout was down in all but twelve states. Turnout numbers in Washington, Delaware, Missouri, South Dakota, California and Indiana dropped by more than 10 percentage points if you compare the 2010 and 2014 elections. At least two states — New Jersey and South Carolina — reported record low turnout. The turnout nationwide for the 2014 midterm elections was a paltry 36.9 percent. (UPDATE: A week later, that total is 36.3 percent.)

That rate is the lowest turnout in any election in modern history. According to a report on voter turnout from the group FairVote.org, elections in presidential years have an average turnout of around 60 percent, while midterm turnout averages around 40 percent. The lowest previous turnout in midterms was 39 percent. So America didn’t do itself proud this time around.


How about racial breakdowns? The U.S. News article tells us that “more than 40 percent of likely nonvoters in the 2014 elections identified as Hispanic, black or other racial/ethnic minorities, compared with 22 percent of likely voters.” No Obama on the ballot, no meaningful action on immigration — fewer voters from the affected groups.

An opinion piece on Talking Points Memo gives more voting breakdown: “What did change is that Republicans boosted their percentage among African-Americans from 6 percent won by Romney to 10 percent yesterday; from 27 percent to 35 percent among Latinos; and from 26 percent to 49 percent among Asians.” Age demographics had some impact on Republican minority performance, particularly among Latinos. The older the voter, the more conservative, no matter the ethnicity.

We all have the right and the responsibility to vote, even if someone enters the voting booth with ideas we disagree with or ideas we think are just plain crazy. And let’s face it — many voters are poorly informed. We’ve spent a solid two months of nonstop media coverage of Ebola, with enough misinformation that people think you can catch Ebola if a person somewhere in your city was somewhere in Africa sometime in the last year. According to a devilish 2013 poll, more voters in Louisiana — 29 percent — blamed President Obama for the poor response to Hurricane Katrina than blamed President George W. Bush — 28  percent. A full 44 percent weren’t sure. Hint to Louisiana idiots: Hurricane Katrina was in 2005. Who was president? Bush. When was Obama inaugurated? 2009.

(Of course, what can you expect from voters in a state that elected a governor, Bobby Jindal, who told doctors and scientists heading to New Orleans for a meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene — a group that knows a heck of a lot more about the Ebola virus than he does — to stay away from his state if they’ve been treating Ebola patients? Otherwise, he’ll quarantine you. At least ten medical experts were forced to miss the meeting. But we digress.)

If you were on the receiving end of the countless emails begging for money from some form of the Democratic Party — the DNC, the DCCC, the DSCC, or individual candidates — no doubt you also received an email touting how successful their voter outreach was. One email bragged that in 2010, there were 16.9 million phone calls and door knocks; in 2012, there were 24.3 million; and in 2014, the total number of phones called and doors knocked on totaled 40 million. (Note: The 40 million total is from the DCCC, or D-Trip, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The DSCC, or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in a similar email, claimed 30 million. They really should make their numbers agree, don’t you think?)

Oh, please. If the voter outreach was that successful, the outcome would be different. No matter what the numbers are of increased voter registrations, door knocks and phone calls, the fact is that Democrats lost, and lost badly. And the big reason they lost was that too few people on their side voted. And that too many Democratic candidates lacked a coherent message on improving the economy. And that too many were too chicken to present a unified front that included the head of the party — President Obama. And the fact that they spent way too much on ineffective TV ads. And gee, maybe the 50-state strategy developed by former Gov. Howard Dean for 2006 was a good idea after all. But those observations should be the subject of other postings.

No one underestimates the importance of actual voter contact and get-out-the-vote effort, but it has got to be meaningful, and it has to be done the right way. People start clicking away from stations the umpteenth time they’ve seen the same ad. Robocalls are useless; most people hang up the minute they realize they’ve got one. Our home got four separate calls from the same organization about voting, and only two people live here. I remember making calls in the 2008 election. A voter in Iowa told me that this was the fifth time he had received a call from the Obama campaign, and could we PLEASE STOP, ALREADY?

This year, the DSCC started a program to increase voter turnout called the Bannock Street Project, named for the street that held the Democratic Party headquarters in Denver. The name was chosen in honor of the successful get-out-the-vote push in Colorado in 2010, in which John Hickenlooper was elected governor (he was narrowly re-elected in 2014) and Michael Bennet was elected senator. Alas, it didn’t work for Mark Udall, who lost to Sen.-elect Cory Gardner. So maybe the focus was off, and it’s back to square one.

What does all of this mean for the 2016 election? How does it affect getting people to the polls, and making voting easier? How can more voters — especially young voters — become more engaged? Where will new and better candidates come from, and what should they be talking about? I don’t have the answers. But it seems like the Democrats have a lot of work to do.

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