The disappearing American voter
© Greg Nash

It’s just over one week since we elected a new president and already the pundits have completed their post-mortem. Using the same flawed analysis and conventional wisdom that led them to assert that this would be a victory for Secretary Clinton pre-election.

They now definitively state why she lost: Clinton was a flawed candidate, many of President Obama’s voters shifted to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJudge rules Alaska governor unlawfully fired lawyer who criticized Trump Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE to create a Trump “wave,” a surge of working class whites voted for Trump, voter suppression efforts succeeded, etc.


The fact is that the reasons for the outcome of this race are far too complex for cable news to communicate. But we do know one thing, there was no massive Trump wave.

As it stands right now, Trump received about the same number of votes nationwide as Mitt Romney did in 2012. Clinton, however, received over four million fewer votes than Obama in his 2012 reelection. Trump won because voters who showed up in 2008 and 2012 to vote for Obama decided to sit this one out.

The result: Turnout in this election looks to be the lowest since 2000. Right now, turnout of voters in the presidential race stands at just over 56 percent of eligible voters. This is only the second time since 1920 that turnout in a presidential election with no incumbent running declined from the previous election (the other being 1988).

According to the United States Election Project, around twenty states, including swing states like Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin, saw lower turnout in 2016 than in 2012.

Sadly, this year’s presidential election is not an anomaly. It is the rule.

We are seeing a smaller and smaller sliver of the eligible electorate participate in our democracy. Historic declines in voter turnout are seen in local elections, federal primary and general elections, and now, starkly, in a presidential election. It affects both parties – while Democrats and Republicans each win elections in this environment, neither is building up their base of voters, and each party’s primary electorate is more and more defined by their more-motivated fringes.

Nevertheless, the political parties, campaigns, and third party groups continue to try the same tactics to get out the vote. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on turnout this year and participation still declined. There are complex and interrelated forces working to depress the electorate, not just in this election, but in all elections.

There is no magic wand we can wave to fix this. Campaigns and groups are working hard to create Obama voters, or Trump voters, or minimum wage voters, or gun rights voters, or every other kind of [fill-in-the-blank] voters, but we are failing to create habitual voters. We need a long-term, non-partisan strategy to study this issue more fully, experiment with new methods, and we need to do this in partnership with government officials from both parties, researchers, advocates, and all Americans — whites and people of color, religious and secular, young and old, rich and poor.

I see this plan having two parts. First, we must continue to modernize and improve voter registration systems via online voter registration and by encouraging states to maintain more accurate, more complete lists through the Electronic Registration Information Center. Every citizen who wants to vote should find it easy to register and keep their voter record up-to-date.

Second, we must change the way we address the turnout problem.

Partisan get-out-the-vote efforts, designed to inflame passions for a specific election and targeted at specific segments of the electorate have simply not worked. Instead, let us experiment with new efforts to create voters — voters from across the political spectrum who will show up regardless of who or what’s on the ballot, using current technologies to reach them and try to engage.

And we must encourage them to vote not just in major elections, but in all elections, gradually moving them up the ladder of participation from never voting until they are regular voters.

This will require a rigorous methodology, as well as a partnership with government officials of both parties, but it can be done. The downward spiral of declining turnout can be reversed, slowly and over several election cycles, but only if we are honest with ourselves about the nature of this problem, and patient in knowing that this will not be solved overnight.

David Becker is the executive director and co-founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research located in Washington DC. He also served as the director of Pew's Election Initiatives team and a senior voting rights attorney at the Department of Justice during both the Clinton and Bush administrations.


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