With the 2014 midterm elections coming up, the political sphere is getting ready for a shift in congressional party dynamics. The Democratically controlled Senate is likely to turn Republican, and the United States seems to be focusing almost solely on the GOP’s forecasted gains. The current dynamics seem to suggest that the race is already over, despite still being weeks away.
The New York Times recently published an article detailing the actions the newly-Republican congress are planning on taking, suggesting their anticipation of success in the midterms. Similarly, Politico detailed the celebrations hosted by Magnum Entertainment Group, a rightward-leaning event planning firm located in Washington D.C., that are scheduled to occur on November 4th. Invitees included the Republican Governors Association, National Republican Congressional Committee, and Republican National Committee. Thus, discussion is undeniably focused away from the election itself, with the exception of specific tight races. The public now is increasingly set on the future of our political system with a Republican-controlled House and Senate. Will there continue to be such deadlock? Will federal regulation of fracking become banned? Will we see more spending cuts? What will be the fate of Obamacare?
While these are important questions, one factor of our political system remains overlooked: voter turnout. The public is quick to criticize platforms and legislation, but no one seems to discuss the fact that only around 40% of the eligible voting population shows up to the polls during midterm elections (see figure 1). Presidential years experience an increase up to around 60% of eligible voters, yet compared to other democratic nations this number is quite low. Many other democracies have compulsory voting polities, forcing citizens to become more engaged in their country’s political sphere. While the argument of whether to adopt compulsory voting is controversial, the mere idea raises a point: the country should take a larger interest in what happens in our nation’s capital.
Yet, despite the fact citizens should feel a civic responsibility to vote, almost half choose to abstain. This certainly skews opinions, because the 40-60% of registered voters casting a ballot on Election Day are not representative of the nation. Voter turnout is skewed by such factors like ethnicity, income, and education. Looking at the chart below (see figure 2), it is very apparent that income and voter turnout are correlated. Lower-income individuals do not vote for a variety of reasons, two of which being that they either do not believe they are informed enough or do not believe they have time to make it to the polls. Because Election Day falls on a non-holiday Tuesday, many low-income individuals do not have the flexibility in their schedule to physically go to the polls and wait in line. In addition, they often have fewer connections to candidates than higher-income individuals. Wealthier Americans are much more likely to participate in political activities than poorer individuals, with the exception of protests (see figure 3). Most prominently, the wealthy are much more likely to have political contacts and donate to campaigns, causing them to be more likely to prioritize voting come Election Day.
Similarly, ethnicity plays a role in voter turnout as well. Hispanic/Latino and Asian Americans experience significantly lower turnout rates than blacks and non-Hispanic whites (see figure 4). Particularly with the election of the United State’s first black president, there was a rise in the black vote, surpassing the white vote for the first time and following a steady climb in turnout since 1996. However, most other minorities still need to close the gap between themselves and white voters. While Hispanic/Latino voter turnout continues to grow in both presidential and midterm elections, it is overshadowed by the larger growth in the eligible population who chose not to vote. With poor representation of certain minorities, we see the interests of these groups receive even smaller attention. Our political system would be bettered by increased voter turnout because it equalizes voter participation and allows for a more accurate representation of our nation’s opinions. Rather than focusing on the outcome of a race that isn’t even over yet, the nation should shift its attention towards bettering the system in which chooses the men and women who represent us.
Charts and References
Figure 1: US voter turnout 1948-2012 (Fairvote 2012)
 Data from http://www.census.gov/cps/data/
Figure 2: 2010 US Voter Turnout by Income
Figure 3: Participation by Socioeconomic Status (Weeks 2014)
Figure 4: Voter Turnout by Ethnicity (Taylor and Lopez 2013)