Turnout in the 2004 presidential election was the highest since 1968: 60.7 percent of the eligible citizenry.  However 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 election of 2004 saw unprecedented efforts to register people to vote and to get them to turn out.  The parties, aligned organizations, and organizations targeting specific demographic groups all worked to encourage people to vote.  Person to person contact, particularly from family, friends and neighbors was particularly effective.  In addition the debacle of Florida in 2000 reminded voters that voting can indeed make a difference.  The result was the highest turnout since 1968, 60.7 percent of eligible citizens according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.  States with the highest turnout were Minnesota (77.32% of eligible), Maine (75.28%) and Wisconsin (73.90%); at the other extreme Hawaii came in lowest with (48.92%), followed by Arkansas (51.29%) and South Carolina (51.85%).

However 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.

Remedies to the voter turnout problem may lie beyond the reach of simple pieces of legislation, however.  An August 1998 Center for Voting and Democracy report "Monopoly Politics" predicted 317 of the 435 House races would be uncontested, landslide wins or comfortable wins.  It is an astounding fact that at least 94 House incumbents did not face a major party challenger in November 1998.  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. 

Another possible explanation for low voter turnout is the way politics is conducted today--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.

Besides the parties' 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) done by groups such as Rock The Vote that contain slick get-out-the-vote messages to grassroots drives in which people go door-to-door in targeted neighborhoods. 

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.  
Note that prior to the 2004 election CSAE had used Voting Age Population rather than Eligible Citizens so that in 2000 for example
it had reported turnout as 51.2% of VAP.

Overviews of the Electorate (2004)
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

Register and Vote!   Graphic Interface >>
Project Vote Smart
Democracy Network
League of Women Voters
Southwest Voter Registration Education Project
National Coalition on Black Civic Participation
Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote 2004
National Congress of American Indians' Native Vote 2004
New Voters Project
Youth Vote Coalition
Freedom's Answer
Rock The Vote
National Student/Parent Mock Election
Kids Voting USA
Women's Voices, Women Vote
1000 flowers
Project Vote
The National Coalition for the Homeless' Voting Rights Campaign
National Organization on Disability
Federal Voting Assistance Program
USA Votenet (launched March 1, 2002)

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
    Center for Voting and Democracy
    Alliance for Better Campaigns

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

    4...  ACORN activists register voters on the National Mall during the March for Women's Lives, April 25, 2004. 
    3...  Groups release "18-30 VIP: The 18-To-30 Year Olds' Voter Issues Paper," Feb. 2, 2004.
    2...  Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE)'s Smackdown Your Vote! announce 2MM'04 campaign, Sept. 22, 2003.
    1...  The Center for Democracy & Citizenship-Campaign for Young Voters, July 2002.


    Copyright © 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.