Suppressing Democracy

At a recent Shanker Institute conference, a guest presenter from the United Kingdom was discussing the historical relationship between public spending and democracy. I don’t remember the exact context, but at some point, he noted, in a perfectly calm, matter-of-fact tone, that one U.S. political party spends a great deal of effort and resources trying to suppress electoral turnout.

It’s always kind of jarring to hear someone from another country make a casual observation about an American practice that’s so objectionable, especially when you're well aware it's plainly true. And perhaps never more so than right now.

There are currently several states – most with Republican governors and/or legislatures, including Wisconsin and Ohio – that are either considering or have already passed bills that would require citizens to obtain government-issued identification (or strengthen previous requirements), such as driver’s licenses or passports, in order to register to vote and/or cast a ballot. The public explanation given by these lawmakers and their supporters is that identification requirements will reduce voter fraud. This is so transparently dishonest as to be absurd. Recent incidences of voter fraud are exceedingly rare. Most of these laws are clearly efforts to increase the “costs” of voting for large groups of people who traditionally vote Democratic.

Others have commented on the politics behind these efforts. I’d like to put them in context.

Voter ID laws have been shown to reduce electoral participation. Electoral participation is arguably the most important indicator of a healthy democracy. And, in the U.S., voter participation is – there is no other way to say this – terrible.

As of 2008, there were 172 democracies in the world. In terms of participation, the U.S. ranked 139th. Our participation rate is among the worst in the world.

In the 2010 midterm election, turnout among voting-eligible Americans was roughly 40 percent. For every one voter who made it to the polls, there were 1.5 eligible voters who didn’t. There were only eight states with a turnout rate of over 50 percent. For example, in Wisconsin (where turnout is relatively high, slightly above 50 percent), Governor Scott Walker was elected by securing the votes of roughly 26-27 percent of eligible citizens. And the U.S. midterm turnout rate has not changed appreciably in decades.

In our last presidential election, only about 62 percent of eligible voters showed up. Almost two out of five Americans disenfranchised themselves.

Our participation rates are a national shame. If you slice up the data, however, you can begin to see why.

According to Census data, the 2008 turnout rate among voting-age Americans earning less than $20,000 was roughly 52 percent, compared with over 90 percent among those earning more than $100,000. Only about 40 percent of high school dropouts voted, while over three in four college graduates showed up. Finally, participation among voters age 18-24 was 49 percent, compared with 72 percent among those age 65-74. (Note that all these figures represent self-reported turnout - people telling surveyors whether they voted - which tends to be higher than "real" turnout. The data also reflect turnout among the voting-age population, which is less accurate than voting-eligible rates cited above, because the former includes convicted felons and other individuals who cannot vote.)

Besides their lower turnout rates, these groups – less educated, poorer, younger Americans – share two things in common. First, they are among the likeliest demographics to vote for Democratic Party candidates. Second, they are also among the least likely to have government-issued identification. For instance, at least 15 percent of Americans earning under $35,000 have no valid ID, while the same goes for 18 percent of citizens age 18-24 (in some cases because the ID does not reflect current information). For the record, voter ID laws will also severely suppress turnout among other traditionally-Democratic voters, such as African-Americans, 25 percent of whom lack proper identification.

The laws requiring such identification will disproportionately affect these groups, among whom turnout is already terribly low.

Given all these circumstances, it is hard to imagine why more states haven’t acted to remove barriers to voting, using measures such as same-day registration. But the idea of passing laws that will reduce turnout? In my opinion, there are few things more objectionable than deliberately suppressing voter participation. It’s an embarrassment to our nation and a detriment to our democracy.

- Matt Di Carlo