Voting is a right for all American citizens, but is often one of the most ignored rights, and occasionally one of the most trampled rights.
Any American citizen – native born or naturalized – who meets the residency requirements that his or her state sets down, and hasn’t lost the right by being convicted of a felony or ruled mentally unfit by a court, is eligible to register and vote.
It wasn’t always that way.
Originally, only white male property owners could vote, and in some states they’d also have to be Protestant. When George Washington was elected, only about 6% of the population could vote. It took more than 60 years for all states to remove the property owning requirement, the Civil War to allow African American men to vote, and another 100 years to outlaw voter suppression tactics like poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and voter intimidation that were used in Southern states.
It was about 100 years after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution before the first state – Wyoming – allowed women to vote and another 30 before the 19th Amendment gave all American women the right to vote.
Native Americans couldn’t vote for more than 100 years, and for another 65 only if they gave up their tribal affiliation and applied for citizenship the way immigrants did. Asian American residents of Chinese, Japanese or Indian heritage weren’t guaranteed the right to vote until 1952.
The last major change to American voting laws, which lowered the voting age to 18 in the midst of the Vietnam War and the last compulsory military draft, occurred in 1971, just five years short of the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
A 2018 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau estimated there were 229 million Americans eligible to vote in that year’s midterm elections. But only 153 million said they were registered to vote, and only 122 million of them voted in that year’s midterm election.
Put another way, more than 75 million of those who could vote didn’t bother to register, and of those who did, 31 million didn’t bother to cast a ballot.
Political scientists warn that the Census Bureau figures usually overstate registration and turnout, because those figures are extrapolated from what people say, and some people are embarrassed to admit they don’t register or don’t vote.
Washington state had some 5,228,000 citizens eligible to vote in 2018, with 4,362,459 registered for that November’s election; 3,133,462 voted. In other words, about 850,000 potential voters didn’t register, and more than 1.2 million who were registered didn’t vote.
Among the world’s democracies, the United States ranks 26th – between Estonia and Luxembourg – for percentage of residents who are eligible to vote and cast a ballot in a national election closest to 2016, the Pew Research Center reported. It also has the biggest gap between the number of people who registered and those who actually voted.
A 2017 study by the center concluded that people who don’t register have a significantly different view of participating in the political process than those who register but rarely vote. The most common reason for not registering – cited by 44% of those surveyed – was “I don’t want to vote.”
Those who are unregistered were twice as likely to say they dislike politics as those who are registered but rarely vote. They also were more likely to say voting has little to do with the way “real decisions” are made, or that their one vote wouldn’t affect the outcome. About 1 in 7 unregistered voters surveyed said their religion discourages voting and 1 in 11 said registering was inconvenient.
Those who are registered but rarely vote were more likely to say they don’t like any of the candidates on the ballot, weren’t informed enough to make a good decision or were too busy.
Both groups were equally likely to say they “just don’t think about voting.”
Over the last several decades, Washington elected officials have made registering and voting easier in ways designed to address some common complaints expressed in the Pew Center study. The state has made registering more convenient by allowing Washington residents to sign up by mail or online as well as in person, and starting in 2019 allowed them to register and cast a vote on Election Day if they go to a location designated by their county elections office.
The state sends out voter guides before the general election in even-numbered years, when partisan elections for federal and state offices occur, and in odd-numbered years if there are statewide initiatives on the ballot. That voter information is also available on the Secretary of State’s website.
County elections offices also provide guides for local offices, either printed and mailed to all registered voters, or on their websites.
Convenience was one of the reasons lawmakers cited for switching Washington to the vote-by-mail system, in which ballots are mailed out about three weeks before the election, giving voters until 8 p.m. on Election Day to deposit their ballot in a drop box or have it mailed and postmarked. It would also help voters who claim not to have enough information, supporters said, by giving them time to research candidates or issues in voters pamphlets or online and avoid being caught unaware by an issue or race at the polling place.
Washington began making it easier to register in 1990 with “Motor Voter,” which allowed people to sign up when they got their driver’s license, and expanded that to online registration in later years. It allowed counties to conduct all elections by mail in 2005, and by 2011 all counties were mail-only.
But those changes have produced mixed results for participation. The state saw its highest percentage of eligible citizens registered in 1952, at nearly 91%. The number of registered voters went up every presidential election year since then, but in most cases not as fast as the population. The percentage of registered voters casting ballots stayed relatively steady, between 75% and 80%, for those big elections.
But the state sees dramatic drop-off in the percentage of eligible residents registered and of voters casting ballots in mid-term elections. The 2018 midterm was the first since 1970 where nearly 72% of registered voters – and more than 50% of eligible citizens – cast ballots.
While the state can change the mechanics of registering and voting to make it easier and more convenient, that doesn’t really answer some of other reasons cited in the Pew Center survey that people who are eligible don’t participate in elections. The antidote for apathetic or disaffected voters is often controversial ballot measures or closely contested and well-financed races between candidates, elections officials say.
“It’s the money being spent on advertising and the awareness,” Spokane County Elections Manager Mike McLaughlin said as ballots poured in at a record pace for the 2018 midterm. “People have made up their minds and they want to vote.”