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Not Separating Ourselves from the Community: Voter Turnout and the 2016 Election

Not Separating Ourselves from the Community: Voter Turnout and the 2016 Election

2016 Election Protection Volunteers

While the 2016 presidential election may feel like it took place ages ago, it has been less than two months since November 8 and some states only recently certified their results, giving all of us a more accurate picture of how many Americans turned out to vote this year. According to data from the United States Election Project, about 55% of those old enough to vote cast ballots for president this fall. About 9.5 million eligible voters, according to this data, did not vote at all. By some estimates, this turnout rate is the lowest in a presidential election in 20 years (53.5% of voting-age Americans cast ballots in 1996).

With a campaign that seemingly dominated the headlines and our news feeds for months, why did so many people pass on their opportunity to vote this year? While there are many reasons why someone would not vote, including dissatisfaction with the candidates, lack of faith in government or a feeling that their vote wouldn’t matter, a new wave of voting restrictions likely played a role as well.

The 2016 election was the first presidential election since the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which weakened a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that had helped stop discriminatory voting laws for nearly 50 years. On Election Day, 14 states had new voting restrictions on the books, ranging from photo ID requirements to shorter early voting periods to cuts in same-day registration. Such restrictions have been shown to keep voters of color, poor voters and older voters from exercising their fundamental right. For example, Milwaukee, WI, which held its first presidential election under a statewide photo ID requirement this fall, saw its lowest turnout in 20 years, with 41,000 fewer voters casting ballots than in the last presidential election.

Even in states such as North Carolina and Texas, where court rulings had invalidated some recent restrictions, the constant change in voting procedures can sow confusion amongst eligible voters who may think that they cannot cast a ballot. The non-partisan Election Protection Coalition, of which the Reform Movement is a member, reported that their nationwide hotline received over 100,000 calls during this election cycle from voters who needed some sort of assistance.

At the same time, states which made it easier for eligible voters to cast their ballots saw better turnout rates. For example, the six states with the highest voter turnout rates in the country allow voters to register to vote and cast their ballot on the same day. All of the states with same-day registration (except for the District of Columbia) had higher turnout than the national average. This data suggests that common-sense measures to make voting more convenient can increase voter participation.

Our Reform Jewish values impress upon us the importance of an engaged electorate. “Rabbi Hillel says: Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). Hillel teaches us not only to encourage active participation in civic life, but also to stand against attempts to separate eligible voters from the community by denying their fundamental right. As we continue to learn the lessons of the first presidential election without full protection of the Voting Rights Act, we must continue to push to strengthen this vital civil rights legislation: urge your members of Congress to support legislation that protects the right to vote today.

Jacob Kraus is the campaign organizer at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, leading the Reform Movement’s Urgency of Now campaigns for criminal justice reform and immigrant justice. Based at the Union for Reform Judaism offices in New York City, Jacob grew up in Cincinnati, OH, where his family is affiliated with Rockdale Temple. He is a 2015 graduate of Macalester College.

Jacob Kraus

Published: 12/28/2016