The Participation Gap

A common refrain in American politics is that every vote matters and that it is our responsibility as Americans to make our voices heard in elections.  But how true are these sentiments?  Is every voice being heard if presidential candidates are only engaging with voters in a handful of states? 

Under our current system of electing the president, your interaction with the candidates is largely based on what state you’re in.  Rather than focus on appealing to each and every voter, candidates now focus on the voters in battleground states.  With no engagement by the candidates, voters outside of closely contested battleground states will feel ignored.  And ignored voters can quickly become nonvoters.

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Michael McDonald, a political-science professor at the University of Florida, has asked whether the issue of low voter turnout is because candidates aren’t appealing to nonvoters or if the real issue is that voters feel so disengaged and isolated from the political process that they simply give up on participating.  If Americans believe their votes do not matter, then voter turnout will steadily decline.  And low voter turnout leads to other problems in a democracy.

According to Sean McElwee, in low turnout elections, candidates have good reason to prioritize the wants and needs of a small portion of the public.  But in a system with higher turnout, like a system relying on a national popular vote, candidates and politicians would be more inclined to take into account the interests of more people.

Catering to the small portion of the public who do show up results in policies that don’t align with the priorities of the majority of citizens.  This disconnect is apparent when it comes to economic benefits between voters and nonvoters.  For example, nonvoters tend to favor increased spending to support the expansion of government services while voters generally oppose these policies, a divide that roughly mimics the partisan divide on the issue.

But an increase in voter turnout need not result in policies that conservatives automatically oppose.  There are many poverty-reducing benefits that conservatives and liberals can agree on. Annie Lowery, author of a new book on universal basic income, notes:

“Social Security has slashed the poverty rate among seniors to less than 10 percent from more than 40 percent; a child is more than twice as likely to be impoverished as someone over the age of 65 these days. The earned-income tax credit — you work, you’re poor, you pay your taxes, you get it, more or less — has proved remarkably effective at encouraging single mothers to keep working, without stigmatizing them for not doing so or asking them to document their hours every month. It has drawn hundreds of thousands of women into the labor force and kept them there, all while lifting six million Americans a year out of poverty.”

By increasing turnout through a national popular vote, candidates will have to engage more voters if they want to get elected.  And in reaching out to more people, candidates will have to develop policies that reflect the economic interests of a wider segment of the population, resulting in more policies that both conservatives and liberals can get behind.

If our current system of electing the president doesn’t change, candidates will continue to appeal solely to voters in that year’s closest battleground states and voter turnout will remain low.

While some countries solve low turnout by implementing mandatory voting laws, the United States has never required its citizens to vote.  Mandatory voting in America is not likely to happen anytime soon, but mandatory voting is not the only way to remedy low voter turnout.  If candidates for president campaigned, advertised, and appealed to voters in every state, voters would feel more included in the political process. A system that guaranteed that the candidate who received the most votes always became the president would accomplish this. A national popular vote might also have positive effects in non-presidential election years, where voter turnout is even lowerVoting is a habit and by increasing turnout in presidential elections, the trend can continue to non-presidential elections as well. If the narratives around voting - that it’s a civic duty, that it’s the best way to support your interests, that it truly matters - are reaffirmed, then participation will spread across all elections.  A national popular vote will improve voter turnout and ensure that every vote does count and that all of our voices are heard.