By Robert A. Vella
Despite all the hoopla surrounding the 2016 presidential election campaign, featuring a bombastic nationalist (Donald Trump) and a progressive populist (Bernie Sanders), voter turnout remains very weak and is continuing to decline in the U.S. with only six primary elections to be decided before the party conventions next month.
So far this year, voter turnout stands at a dismal 21.5% (51.7 million votes cast out of 240 million eligible voters). The most recent comparable election cycle was 2008 when both major political parties had contested presidential nomination processes. In the primary contests held that year, voter turnout was nearly 6 points higher at 27.2% (61.4 million votes cast out of 225.6 million eligible voters).
The other major difference between the 2016 and 2008 primaries is a reversal of partisan fortunes. To date in 2016, Democratic Party candidates have garnered 3 million less votes than Republican Party candidates while they enjoyed a whopping 16 million vote advantage over Republicans in 2008.
Who’s not voting? Indications point towards liberal and progressive minded Millennials as the most obvious demographic just at the point in time when their potential political power is peaking. From Pew Research – Millennials match Baby Boomers as largest generation in U.S. electorate, but will they vote?:
Millennials, who already have surpassed Baby Boomers as the United States’ largest living generation, now have caught up to the Boomers when it comes to their share of the American electorate.
As of April 2016, an estimated 69.2 million Millennials (adults ages 18-35 in 2016) were voting-age U.S. citizens – a number almost equal to the 69.7 million Baby Boomers (ages 52-70) in the nation’s electorate, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Both generations comprise roughly 31% of the voting-eligible population.
Last month, Generation X (ages 36-51) and members of the Silent and Greatest generations (ages 71 and older) comprised about 25% and 12% of the electorate, respectively.
The Baby Boomer voting-eligible population peaked in size at 72.9 million around 2004. Since the Boomer electorate is declining in size, it is only a matter of time before Millennials are the largest generation in the electorate.
While the growth in the number of Millennials who are eligible to vote underscores the potential electoral clout of today’s young adults, Millennials remain far from the largest generational bloc of actual voters. It is one thing to be eligible to vote and another entirely to cast a ballot.
Measuring voter turnout is not an exact science. The Census Bureau’s November voting supplements are a standard data source for illuminating the demographics of voting. Census estimates of voter turnout are based on respondent self-reports of whether they voted in the recent election.
Based on these estimates, Millennials have punched below their electoral weight in recent presidential elections. For a host of reasons, young adults are less likely to vote than their older counterparts, and Millennials are no exception.
In the context of their turnout history, the high-water mark for Millennials was the 2008 election, when 50% of eligible Millennials voted. By comparison, 61% of the Generation X electorate reported voting that year, as did even larger percentages of older eligible voters. In 2008 Millennials comprised 18% of the electorate, but as a result of their relatively low turnout they were only 14% of those who said they actually voted.
However, there are other factors negatively impacting voter turnout such as the increasing public distrust of social institutions, and the growing perception that America’s electoral process is insufficiently democratic. Also from Pew Research – Voters have a dim view of primaries as a good way to pick the best candidate:
Just 35% of voters say that the primaries have been a good way of determining the best-qualified nominees, a recent Pew Research Center survey on issues and the campaign has found. This is a smaller share than said so during the 2008 election but is on par with views of the primary process in 1992, 1996 and 2000.
Although the larger problems of public distrust and civic disengagement seem insurmountable, a movement is building in some states to bolster voter participation through a simple, easy to implement effort. Watch this C-SPAN video on the status of Automatic Voter Registration in Oregon and elsewhere.