2014: So Far a Year of Record Low Voter Turnout... What Lies Ahead?

November 7th 2014

Matthew Segal

Those who follow politics and cable news are no stranger to stories about voter suppression. It's been well debated whether photo ID requirements, early voting setbacks, or other procedural barriers may inhibit turnout.  The answer is generally yes: they do. But according to a recent report from American University, there is a much larger threat to our democracy that “quick fixes” will not impact: decreasing voter motivation. According to Professor Curtis Gans, the report’s author, there are a number of growing trends stifling voter incentive. Some of these include:

  1. campaign attack ads that give the citizen a perceived choice between bad and awful
  2. inadequate civic education in schools
  3. a majority of young people who grow up in households with parents who don’t vote and thereby hear no discussions of politics or public affairs
  4. increased inequality that has the collateral effect of reducing hope for those at the bottom
  5. the rise of libertarian and consumerist values at the expense of values that would promote community and collective engagement

The conglomeration of these negative trends has led to record low turnout in the primaries of at least 15 states in 2014. As Les Francis, the federal policy taskforce chair for the Campaign For the Civic Mission of Schools, recently stated:

“All the procedural changes and process improvements won't make a bit of difference if the citizenry doesn't give a damn, if only the hyper-partisan and special interests (right and left) choose to be involved, and if civic engagement means no more than spouting ignorance and perfecting excuse making ("my vote doesn't count," "I was too busy," or even worse, "I don't know enough to vote.")




Civic education is indeed under assault: as of 2011, only 19 states include civic learning in their state assessments, and only ten percent of eighth graders understood our Government’s system of checks and balances. Another study from Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement said that federal policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top overemphasize math and reading at the expense of social studies, and are partly to blame.

But regardless, it would appear the solution ultimately comes back to the voters: “democracy is a demanding religion,” says Professor Gans, “the approach to strengthening it should demand more not less of its citizenry.” Electing politicians who value civics is a national imperative. In 2011, civic education was cut from $119 million to $46 million. The entire civic education portfolio of the Department of Education was also zeroed out. It’s time to reverse these trends, and ironically, the only way to combat them is with more participation, not less.