With the 2016 General Election just a few weeks away, we decided to look into some historical voter participation rates to determine potential turnout in November and discuss some of the steps we can take to encourage voter participation. 

In a powerful infographic recently released by the New York Times, 88 million eligible voters in the United States did not vote in the 2012 General Election. Among the largest demographic of those who did not vote are young people between the ages of 18-24. Of those, only 38% voted according to recent data published by the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Since the 1972 General Election, voter turnout in the U.S. and California has been gradually declining (and more so in primary elections). As the chart below illustrates, 66% of eligible voters in California voted in the 1972 General Election compared to just 48% in 2012. Moreover, The Center for the Study of the American Electorate projects that up to 95 million eligible voters may not vote in this year’s election.  


One potential detriment to voter participation is the number of ballot measures Californians regularly have to consider. As one of the few states in the Union that allows voters the ability to place initiatives and referendums on ballots by its state Constitution, California voters will be asked to consider 18 initiatives this November in addition to vetting various local, state and national elected offices. (The record is 48 ballot initiatives in 1914). Doing so requires voters to conduct their own research on ballot measures which can be a barrier for some citizens who may lack literacy skills, a reliable Internet connection and more. 


What We Can Do to Encourage Voter Participation 

There are a number of changes we can make that would increase voter turnout, such as providing longer early voting periods, instituting vote by mail for all registered voters (as is the case in Oregon), allowing voting on weekends, same-day registration and more ideally, voting by smartphone. (A recent article from the Los Angeles Times cites CA Senate Bill 450 which seeks to expand absentee ballots and offer same-day voter registration through temporary “vote centers.”)

The Pew Research Center reports that nearly two-thirds of adults in the U.S. own a smartphone. If we can make purchases on our phone, board a plane, and send messages to the entire world instantly, we can certainly make voting more accessible and secure with current technologies. Perhaps more importantly, it would significantly increase voter turnout and negate inefficiencies such as waiting in line at voting precincts, and requiring employers from providing employees time off to vote on Election Day. Naturally, adopting any of these changes would require legislative change and would be subject to partisan debate. 

Closer to home, one way to encourage voter participation is to organize meetups with friends and neighbors to discuss proposed ballot initiatives. While some of them may have already made up their minds on certain initiatives (or have predisposed inclinations), discussing the pros and cons of issues may bring clarity to understanding their respective short and long-term impacts. It will also be an opportunity to get to know others in your neighborhood better!

If you work or volunteer at a charitable organization, you can encourage their leaders to sign up with the “Vote with Your Mission/Nonprofit VOTE” campaign supported by the California Association of Nonprofits and United Way. The campaign aims to encourage those working and volunteering at a nonprofit to register vote, as well as those who benefit from their programs and services. It is a great way to encourage civic participation among your own colleagues. 

The hardest task of course is encouraging eligible voters between 18 and 24 to vote. The nonpartisan organization Rock the Vote has demonstrated strong success in connecting eligible youth to registration drives and local voting precincts. However, by reaching out to young, eligible voters via social media, we can also do our part. Some research suggests encouraging young people to vote through social networks is far more likely to be effective than television advertisements and phone calls. Thus, posting notices on your own social network about registration deadlines and information on voting precincts before election day can go a long way in incentivizing youth to vote. 

Not least, don’t forget to find your own ballot and voting location today.