Prioritize Increasing Voter Turnout

The Brennan Center’s Democracy Agenda outlines a series of concrete proposals that the next President and Congress should embrace to improve democracy in America.

February 4, 2016

The United States has one of the lowest voter participation rates among industrial democracies.[1] Only 36.4 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2014 election — the lowest turnout in a federal election in seven decades.[2] The election was consequential, determining which party controlled the Senate.  

Low turnout is not just a problem of fewer people exercising their right to participate in democracy. Low turnout skews the electorate, making it older, richer, and, with the exception of recent presidential elections, whiter than America as a whole. It also fuels political polarization, since the most extreme and partisan voters are also the most frequent voters. This leads to more extreme elected officials who enact public policies that cater more to the voting class than to non-voters.

Proposals

We need to increase turnout to help address this misrepresentation, while boosting civic engagement. Here are two ideas:

A Race to the Top

Social science research suggests that repeated contacts by community members, and community norms around voting, increase turnout. A federal grant program should be available for states to experiment with different strategies to boost turnout, and reward states that are successful.

Agency Action

On his own, the president can encourage turnout by directing Cabinet-level agencies to develop plans to promote voter participation. For example, the Defense Department could improve ballot delivery to deployed military personnel and ensure their voter registrations are current. The Education Department could provide voter education and registration services to 15 million public high-school students. Other agencies could take simpler actions, such as offering their facilities as polling places. Together, these steps can turn more citizens into registered voters, and more registered voters into full participants in our elections.

Resources

  • 15 Executive Actions: Details actions the President can take to strengthen democracy, including by directing federal agencies to increase voter participation.

Next: Other Voting Reforms


[1] JENNIFER ROSENBERG WITH MARGARET CHEN, BRENNAN CTR. FOR JUSTICE, EXPANDING DEMOCRACY: VOTER REGISTRATION AROUND THE WORLD 3 (2009), available at  http://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/publications/Expanding.Democracy.pdf.

[2] Michael Waldman, Hillary’s Game-Changing Voting Reform, Politico Magazine, June 10, 2015, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/06/hillary-clinton-2016-voting-reform-118761.html#.VbZdKvnqU1V