“To everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you,” President Barack Obama said Wednesday, after the GOP’s victory in the midterm elections. But, he added pointedly, “to the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.”
It’s not clear how higher across-the-board turnout would have affected results, nor would it be acceptable to question the outcome based on low turnout. The president was right to begin his remarks with congratulations to Republicans for campaigns well-waged.
But dismal voter participation, even in presidential elections, is a persistent challenge. The percentage of eligible voters that turned out this cycle is somewhere in the upper 30s, according to preliminary estimates from the United States Elections Project. That’s pathetic. Yet the supposedly high turnout rates in the past two presidential elections hovered only around 60 percent. It’s hardly impressive when two-fifths of the country chooses not to have its voice heard.
American democracy would be more credible with more people voting. Politicians would not be left to speculate about whether election results reflect the will of the people — a way for them to self-servingly define what Americans want or refuse to change in anticipation of a different election with a different electorate. As Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus pointed out, low participation also pushes politicians to invest heavily in get-out-the-vote operations and unattractive partisan fringe politics. The nation would be better off if its leaders could devote more effort to making a positive case for their candidacies.
Barring the highly unlikely imposition of mandatory voting, voters bear the most responsibility for improving turnout. But there is still a large role for policy — and, in particular, for leaders to remove barriers to the ballot box. The trench warfare over voter ID laws and other transparent efforts by Republicans to suppress Democratic turnout will continue in the courts this year and next. But state leaders, who generally decide electoral rules within their borders, should go much further than merely refraining from making voting harder.
Voter registration, for example, adds an often-cumbersome step. Just this election cycle, thousands of qualified voters in Georgia were left in limbo when there was gratuitous confusion about whether their registrations had been processed. At the least, states should institute universal voter registration systems that diminish the chance that procedural barriers will prevent American citizens from exercising such a fundamental right.
Yet here, unfortunately, is the sad truth: It’s likely that reasonable efforts to simplify the voting process will go nowhere in many states, for the simple reason that too many politicians — particularly, at the moment, Republicans — want to keep turnout low.