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Blair Horner: A Look At Election 2016

One of the notable surprises of last week’s Presidential Election is that it appears that Donald Trump has become President-elect while getting fewer votes than Mitt Romney received in his losing Presidential bid in 2012.  You heard that right, while there are still results being counted in Michigan, as of now Donald Trump received roughly 60.3 million votes, while Mitt Romney in 2012 received nearly 61 million votes. 

Hillary Clinton appears to have garnered nearly 61 million votes (more than Trump), but far less than Barack Obama’s 66 million in 2012.

What happened?  We do know that the population of the nation grew during that time, as did the number of voters.  In 2016, there are an estimated 323.4 million Americans with nearly 226 million eligible voters.  In contrast, in 2012, there were 308.1 million Americans and 215 million eligible voters.

Yet fewer people voted.  Why?

Part of it is the increasing difficulty in voting in America.  As part of the ongoing – and false – campaign about so-called voter fraud, laws are now in place that makes it more difficult for eligible Americans to register and for voters to vote.

In 2016 alone, at least 14 states installed restrictive voting laws around the country, including limitations on voter registration, photo ID mandates and narrower time periods for early voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

But it’s also part of an “institutional voter suppression” effort.  By that I mean the way in which the elections are conducted.  In New York State, for example, the longest lines to vote are usually in the City of New York.  Voters who see long lines can be turned off and choose not to vote.  Low turnout in New York City is a key reason why New York State is at the “bottom of the nation’s barrel” in voter participation.

Since New York State is a “blue state” why would it allow long lines in the Democratic Party-dominated City?  Current elected officials win because the current crop of voters turns out.  Bringing in new voters can put incumbents – of any party – at risk.  There is less incentive to overhaul the system.

Another factor is the toxicity of the election itself.  The more ugly the election, the more likely voters will be turned off.  That has to have been a factor in last week’s election.  Less-partisan voters are less likely go to the polls and that suppresses turnout. 

There is not much that can be done to reduce the toxic nature of American politics.  But there are things that can be done to make voting easier.

Americans have a constitutional right to vote.  However for some, voting is seen as a privilege that citizens should strive to achieve.  Thus, for those individuals, registration requirements are no big thing.

Yet, in other democracies, voting is treated as a right.  In most countries, the government takes the lead in getting people’s names on the rolls – whether by registering them automatically once they become eligible (as in, for example, Sweden or Germany) or by aggressively seeking out and registering eligible voters (as in the UK and Australia).

In the U.S., by contrast, registration is mainly an individual responsibility. And registered voters represent a much smaller share of potential voters in the U.S. than just about any other advanced democracy: Only about 65% of the U.S. voting-age population was registered in 2012, compared with 91% in Canada and the UK, 96% in Sweden and nearly 99% in Japan.

Democracy is a work in progress.  But when it comes to voting, progress – not retrenchment – is needed.  Hopefully, Governor Cuomo can figure out a way to move New York State from one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to voting, to an example of what should be done.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.  They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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