by Tom Suhrbur
In the 2016 election, control of the most powerful nation on earth is at stake. Americans will not only elect a new president but the political make-up of the U.S. Supreme Court will be determined. A Republican presidential victory will give conservatives complete control over all three branches of the federal government. Voter turnout will decide the direction that the nation takes. The U.S. has one of the lowest voter turnouts among the democratic nations of the world. According to Pew Research, the U.S. in 2012 had the 32nd lowest voter turnout of the 35 wealthiest democracies. Increasing voter participation can have a major impact on world events.
Voter turnouts are highest in presidential elections; turnouts drop off significantly in mid-term elections. The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 witnessed the highest turnout in 40 years. 61.6% of the voting age population cast ballots; Democrats swept into power that year winning control of both houses of Congress. When Obama was re-elected in 2012, 58% voted. In the 2010 mid-term election, only 41% of the eligible voting age population voted. In that year, Republicans captured the House of Representatives and swept to power in many state capitols. In the 2014 mid-term election, 36% voted. It was the lowest turnout since 1942 – 72 years ago. Republicans not only won control of the Senate but also significantly increased their majority in the House. They also won a number gubernatorial seats previously held by Democrats including Bruce Rauner in Illinois. Low turnouts favor the Republican Party. It is no secret why Republicans have passed laws designed to make voting more difficult. The rationale for these laws is to prevent voter fraud even though there is very little evidence to support claims of voter irregularity.
Eligible voters must take the initiative to register themselves in order to vote. In the U.S., about 25% of the eligible voting age population is not registered. Coupled with the fact that many registered voters do not cast ballots, the U.S. has very low turnouts. Many nations automatically register their voting age citizens. Except for California and Oregon, there is no automatic registration in the U.S. Naturally, Republican legislators voted in unison against the laws that established automatic registration in these two states.
The low rate of registration coupled with the fact that so many registered voters do not show up accounts for the very poor turnouts. In the “huge” 2008 turnout, Obama received 52.9% of the ballots cast; he received just 32.6% of the eligible voters. In 2014, 40.2% voted. Republican Bruce Rauner won 50.27% of the ballots cast; he was elected governor by just 20.2% of the eligible voting age population.
Voter registration and turnout correlates directly with the age of the voters. Those 65 and older are most likely show up at the polls; 18-34 years olds are the least likely to be registered and to vote. In 2014, 59.4% of seniors 65 years and older voted; only 23.1% of those 18- 34 years old cast ballots. Democrats would gain the most by increasing voter participation, especially among younger Americans. According to the Gallup Poll, “Only around 20% of young Americans below the age of 25 identify as Republicans…. Democrats are quite strong among the youngest Americans, particularly those under age 24, among whom more identify as Democrats than independents.” If the Democrats are going to do well in the November election, they should encourage younger voters to register and to vote.
The low rate of registration, in itself, does not explain why so many young voters do not vote. In the past, political campaigns have not focused on issues that win over younger voters. The 2016 election could be different. Bernie Sanders is turning out huge crowds by campaigning on issues that resonate with young voters. Climate change, student debt, war and peace, social justice, economic inequality, and the corruption of big money in politics are major concerns especially among younger Americans. Sander’s success points out the importance of getting young voters to the polls in November. No matter who wins the presidential nomination, Democrats need to campaign on these issues to court these young voters. There will likely be a very large turnout in November since so much is at stake that will impact on their lives.
What is needed is voter registration drives in Illinois high schools, community colleges and universities. Since students are the least likely group of eligible voters to be registered and to vote, it makes sense to encourage the young, voting age population to register. The Illinois Education Association, Illinois Federation of Teachers, Chicago Teachers Union, and AFSCME have direct access to voting age students through their unions. High school social studies teachers could organize registration efforts as civic engagement projects this spring and next fall. Higher education unions could set up registration tables on campuses across the state.
In Illinois, it is now easier to register than ever before. The state has same day registration as well as online registration. Online registration only takes a few minutes. It can be done on a computer or cell phone.
How to Become Eligible to Vote: It’s Easy!
To vote in Illinois:
- You must be a United States citizen.
- You must be 18 on or before the date of the General Election.
- You must live in your election precinct at least 30 days prior to Election Day.
To register online, you will need:
- An Illinois Driver’s License or an Illinois State ID.
- The last four digits of your Social Security number.
It only takes a few minutes to exercise your citizenship rights. Your future is at stake. Remember: whether or not you’re interested in politics, politics is interested in you.