In American elections, many forces come into play. Over the course of a campaign, ads, fundraising, scandals, economic factors, and the political environment affect the performance of each campaign depending on their positions on the issues, responses to scandal, and incumbency advantage (or lack thereof), among many other things. But what is often overlooked is who these campaigns are trying to gain the support of. Voters, altogether comprising the electorate, are of course what elections are all about, and that’s why it’s important to examine who is able to vote, who does vote, what voters are voting for, how all of these have changed, and if there are more changes that should be made for the better.
The eligible voter population has expanded greatly since America’s founding, at which point only white landowning male citizens held the franchise. Although there were states in which landowning women could vote, that practice had ended by 1807. With the advent of so-called Jacksonian democracy, all white males citizens, regardless of land ownership status, became eligible to vote. After the enactment of the 14th Amendment, all male citizens became able to vote. Once the 19th Amendment was enacted, in 1920, all citizens were supposedly eligible to vote, but it took the 24th Amendment, which banned the practice of poll taxes that had barred blacks and poor whites from voting, to make this true. However, only once the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 were American elections mostly free, due to widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans in the Jim Crow South. The full electorate was expanded when the 26th Amendment, passed in 1971, lowered the voting age to 18 from 21. But even though the franchise has been granted to all non-felon citizens, that doesn’t mean that they all take advantage of it.
With a Voting Eligible Population (VEP) about as big as it’s going to get in terms of a percentage of the total population, turnout has become a more pressing issue. Before Jacksonian democracy, the tough restrictions on voting meant that turnout was very low, as the overwhelming majority of citizens did not participate in elections. However, after bars to voting such as property ownership and religious belief were removed, turnout surged, and although the VEP was small at the time, it sometimes reached as high as 80% in the latter part of the 19th century. It was forced back down towards the beginning after redeemer Democrat governments in Southern states disenfranchised black voters and entrenched the Jim Crow system, but rose again after women received the right to vote, as women started to turn out at higher rates than men. Despite the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, peak turnout in the 20th century was actually in 1960 at 62.8% of Voting Age Population (VA), five years before it passed. It hasn’t surpassed 60% since 1968.
Several factors affect turnout to this day. One of these is the fact that Election Day is always on a workday, meaning that voters have to take off work and penalize themselves or vote after work. This also demotivates some people as it makes voting a hassle. Another factor is that an increasing percentage of Americans live in noncompetitive congressional or legislative district and don’t consider it worthwhile to vote because they don’t think they can influence the election’s outcome. A third is that voters may not like or are unenthused by the options on their ballot, and so simply don’t cast a vote at all. Unfortunately, income level is highly correlated with turnout, as it is easier for those with higher incomes to both take the time to vote and get themselves to a polling place. Age is also a factor, as seniors are much more likely to vote than young adults. Finally, education level makes a massive difference in likelihood to vote, because those with more years of education are more likely to have a higher income but also tend to be better informed as to what they’re voting on.
A major reason as to why Americans participate at such drastically lower rates in electoral democracy than other developed nations is that there is simply so much more to vote for. American voters may have a similar number of positions to vote for as other members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), but overall, they have many more elected officials than those countries. Between state, county, municipal, and special district officials, as well as judges on all of those levels, American voters are supposed go to the polls multiple times per year, in many cases every year, in order to elect their representatives, administrators, and judges. Some political scientists have theorized that part of the reason that voters in the US are so unenthused about the whole process is that local elections, which often affect constituencies most directly, are inconveniently scheduled and extremely low turnout means that only the most excited voters end up making the decisions that affect their lives on a governmental level. One suggestion is to consolidate elections with state or federal elections, so that those elected are more representative of the whole population, but the counterargument to that is that voters need to be able to decide each election on its merits and not cast all of their votes based on the political environment or reflexive partisanship. Another is to reform or eliminate judicial elections and either implement appointment commissions or retention elections. This could address increasing concerns about judges, who can frequently wield power in a more unilateral fashion than executives or legislators, becoming beholden to politics, partisanship, and money. Elections are arguably more democratic, but perhaps the selection of judges should be less democratic precisely because judges need to remain above the fray so that they’re not swayed by the momentary whims of the public or the purses of large donors.
On the whole, the American electorate has greatly expanded and diversified, but there are still changes that can be made as to what voters should be voting for as well as increase their involvement.