Voting likely to be dismal in midterms this November

Primary turnout signals big drop in voting

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The 2014 elections are on track to set an ignoble record – the lowest voter turnout ever.

So far this year, turnout in statewide primaries has been crashing.  The Center for the Study of the American Electorate, long the center of expertise on the mechanics of voting, has issued a study of the first 25 primaries of 2014.

Overall, turnout in those states declined 18 percent from 2010, the last midterm election. Cumulatively, 14.8 percent of eligible citizens showed up to vote, down from 18.3 percent in 2010. That’s a big drop.

Turnout in 15 of the 25 states broke records, but the bad kind: they were record lows. Only three states had higher turnout than 2010: West Virginia, Nebraska and North Carolina.

Going back a bit further, turnout this year has been less half of what it was in the 1966 primaries. 

“Many decades ago citizens turned out to vote out of a sense of civic duty and because of an allegiance to one or other major party,” the report says. “That motivation has largely been lost. The numbers in this report reflect how deeply citizens are turning away from political engagement and from positive feeling about one or another major political party.”

One especially discouraging finding: reforms intended to make voting easier failed.

Four states have Election Day registration and all had lower turnout than 2010; two of them had record lows, Iowa and Maine. Both states are home to some frisky races this year.

States with all-mail voting had lower turnout as well; same with states that allow early in-person voting.

“We have made it easier and easier to vote, at some risk, without having a positive effect on turnout,” the report says. “The reasons should be obvious. The core problem of participation does not reside in the realm of procedure, but rather in motivation.”

That is a painfully obvious. Congress inspires less public trust and confidence than it has since the invention of polling. If Congress were really clever, it would outlaw polling.

There is certainly a school of thought that low turnout is a trivial issue. Statistically, the “sample” of people who do vote is plenty big enough for the results to mirror the whole population. Except that minorities and young people vote less.

Turnout has been dwindling since the 1970s. And somehow the Republic still stands.

But any business would look at trends like this, see a disaster and respond radically (OK not the news business!).

Office-seekers in contrast respond by doubling-down on the practices we know voters dislike: negative ads, heavy fundraising, increasingly partisan policies and generally increased political marketing.

And in many states, Republican efforts to prevent voter fraud are having the unintentional effect — some charge it actually is intentional — of making it harder for young people and minorities to vote.

Come to think of it, maybe a little voter fraud isn’t such a bad thing. In Chicago, the old Election Day mantra was, “Vote early and vote often.” The streets sure got plowed fast in those days.

Print this article Back to Top

DecodeDC's Mission

DecodeDC's foremost aim is to be useful. That means being a reliable, honest and highly entertaining source of insight and explanation. It also means providing multimedia coverage of Washington's people, culture, policies and politics that is enlightening and enjoyable. Whether it's a podcast, a video, an interactive graphic, a short story or a long analysis, it will be based on this guiding principle: We are in DC but not OF DC.