The US Census published a report on voting in America last week that was the usual – the nation’s voters don’t go to the polls as often as they should and in some parts of the country, like New York, and for some age groups – mainly young voters – the turnout has been dreadful.
According to the report, about two-thirds of eligible Americans voted in the last Presidential election. The older the age group, the more likely they were to vote. In 2012, for example, the voting rate for the 65 years and older group was over 70 percent.
The report identified one surprising finding: The phenomenon of elderly Americans voting at higher rates than all other age groups is a fairly recent development in American elections. Between 1964 and 1992, voting rates for the 65 years and older group were either lower than or not statistically different from at least some other age breakdown. In 1964, for example, the oldest group of Americans actually voted at a lower rate than younger voters between 25 and 64-year-olds. It was not until 1996 that the oldest voting rates surpassed those of all other age groups, a development that has remained consistent in every presidential election since.
Clearly, the voting patterns set by then-younger voters in the 1960s and 1970s have continued as that voting group has aged.
Voting rates have also historically varied according to gender. In every presidential election since 1996, women have voted at higher rates than men. Most recently in 2012, the spread was about 4 percentage points.
And that gender gap has been consistently present for most age groups, particularly young voters. In elections from 1964 through 2012, young women between the ages of 18 through 29 voted at higher rates than young men of the same ages. In each election since 1996, women have voted at higher rates than men for all age groups except in the oldest age group.
For elderly Americans, a gender voting gap has operated in reverse, with men 65-years-of-age and older voting at higher rates than women in every election since 1996, although that difference has been shrinking in recent elections.
When the report examined voting rates at the state level, it found that young voters, either those aged 18 through 24 or aged 18 through 29, have been less inclined than other age groups to turnout at the polls. According to the report, young adults – those between the ages of 18 and 24 – had an anemic turnout rate, with a mere 45 percent voting in 2012. However, young-adult voters have tended to be more engaged in states with older populations that are highly engaged as well.
Unfortunately, the reverse was true. New York State, for example, which has had lower than the national average voting rates, has low turnout rates from its younger voters.
In 2012, New York State voters over the age of 30 had a 63 percent voting rate – lower than the national average. New York’s younger voters – those between 18 and 29 – had a voter turnout rate of 42 percent, lower than the national average as well.
So, why do some states – like Mississippi, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (which had the highest voting rates) – have higher voter turnout? While it’s not 100 percent clear, there are policies that seem to encourage higher voter turnout. Most notably, three of the four top performing states allow voters to register and vote on Election Day and allow voters to get absentee ballots without having to provide an excuse as to why. Neither option is available in New York.
In fact, despite the New York State constitutional requirement that no one can register to vote within 10 days of the election, lawmakers have made it even harder. State law goes beyond the constitutional limit and prohibits (in most circumstances) voters from registering to vote within 25 days of an election.
When it comes to younger voters, there are problems in New York as well. Despite a clear legal right to register from their campus addresses if they wish (in the same way as senior citizens can choose their voting address if they have more than one), localities sometimes challenge students’ rights.
New York State – and the nation as well – should be developing mechanisms to allow easier voter participation. Voting is a constitutional right, not a privilege.
Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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