Low Voter Turnout A Long-Running Problem Not Easily Remedied

Commentators have no trouble spotting and no hesitation denouncing the various afflictions wracking the body politic in our state and nation.  Devising effective remedies that people are willing to enact and follow has a much higher degree of difficulty to it.

The recent Pennsylvania primary election featured conditions that were presumed to be catnip to voters.  More competitive congressional districts.  More fresh candidates.  More women seeking office.  A rock ‘em, sock ‘em contest for the Republican nomination for governor.  As the topper, every election is being perceived as a referendum on President Donald Trump, bringing out rabid supporters and opponents.

So where were the voters this spring?  Apparently, not standing in long lines at the polling places.  The turnout numbers fell short of expectations and were not much different from the customary lackluster results in non-presidential years.

As every political observer knows, so-called off-year elections are notoriously turnout light.  But hopes had risen that this year would be different, because of the shock waves roiling politics.  So much for wishing and hoping.  The unpleasant reality is getting more difficult to deny – whichever side is winning elections in a particular cycle, we all are losing the fight for increased public participation.

This has gotten the attention of legislative leaders, who seem genuinely intent on changing some of the hindering election rules.  That is an encouraging development, and if it pans out in legislative action, will represent commendable progress.

The search for a paramount cause and a single surefire solution is futile.  Probably every problem someone identifies plays into the unsatisfactory circumstances.  The comeback trail starts with opening up the system.  Time is spent fulminating about speculated or suspected voter fraud.  This makes some folks notoriously skittish about changes.  Yet the menu of potentials is hardly reckless stuff, having been road-tested in at least a few states, and seemingly adaptable here.  Loosening up registration requirements.  No excuse absentee ballots.  Open primaries.  Early voting.  In this age of high technology, shutting off registration a month before voting takes place seems positively stone age.

Increasing the pool of potential voters and making access easier for registered voters are logical ways of addressing concerns.  Lowering barriers should increase participation.  But the problem is more complicated than that.  We still must account for the vast majority of registered Republicans and Democrats who choose to stay away from the polls, except for presidential elections.

Over time, assorted voter outreach approaches have been used.  We have tried appeals to patriotism and citizenship duty.  We have tried guilt, recalling those who sacrificed their lives to defend our rights, especially voting.  We have tried contrast, illustrating the examples of other countries where people brave death threats to cast their votes.  Judging from the discouraging results, efforts to excite, exhort, persuade, and guilt are proving insufficient.

We are left to wonder if various policy and societal changes have not combined in a witches’ brew of noninvolvement.  The frequent gridlock that ties up government runs counter to the sense of instant gratification that people have become accustomed to yearning for.  The diminishing emphasis on civics education has not helped imbue individual responsibility.

Then there is the matter of plunging public trust in public institutions and the people who serve in public positions, elected and appointed.  Whatever anyone thinks of the president’s agenda, actions, or personality, his constant attacks on government institutions and even his own administration officials make the situation worse.

It is commonplace to decry the cost of campaigns and the huge imbalance between negative and positive ads.  These tend to steel the hardliners and put off the moderates and middle-grounders.  The negative that turns elections has a carryover consequence of making governance more difficult.  A spinoff consequence is the increasing difficulty of enticing or recruiting community involved and privately successful people to seek public office.  Why does this matter for voting?  Because a common excuse offered for not voting is dissatisfaction with the field of candidates.

Again, adults are not setting a good example for the young.  Think about the messages being sent.  When we do not care enough to teach the fundamentals of citizenship.  When we do not show respect for government, for public officials, or for the views of those who disagree with us.  When students who decide to get involved are roundly criticized for being misinformed, for being in over their heads, or for being dupes of special interests.  When our institutions are routinely castigated, and qualified individuals of high reputation increasingly beg off, depriving public service of fresh and optimistic talent?  Is it any wonder seminal enthusiasm for civic participation quickly dissipates?

There is a wildcard move to consider.  That would be amending the state Constitution to allow for initiative and referendum.  Maybe having a hand in direct policymaking would draw more voters where choosing between candidates fails to.  Yet, such a giant leap is hard to imagine at this juncture.

Ultimately this problem is not solved by new laws or redoubled exhortations about the responsibilities of citizenship.  Changing the tone and tenor of politics is really the solution.  Easily enough stated, but the decades long downward spiral into tribalism and coarseness will be tough to reverse.  There is not a wand to wave to turn divisiveness into community spirit, or to convince hardcore partisans that words such as compromise, negotiation, and concession are not synonyms for treason.

We have been repeatedly told that Americans will be winning so much we will tire of it.  Persistent low voter turnout is certainly not winning in the way a healthy democracy must.  Politics as being practiced these days is effectively sabotaging public participation, which in turn erodes the strength of democracy.  It is high time for folks to dust off that vision thing and rally round for reform.


David A. Atkinson is an Associate with the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute of Policy Studies.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.