There’s not much Zack Hudgins enjoys more than watching democracy in action.
The 49-year-old state representative from Tukwila, south of Seattle, started volunteering on political campaigns when he was 15. Hudgins managed a number of Democratic congressional campaigns before running for office himself in 2002. Now he’s seeking his ninth term representing Washington’s 11th Legislative District.
Hudgins reveres democracy so much he has traveled around the world to strengthen institutions in other countries. He has been to Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and India, helping improve their election procedures. In the fall of 2004 — barely 18 months after U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein from power — he was in Baghdad, working with the Iraqi interim government as it prepared for that nation’s first free election in more than 50 years.
“I wasn’t in the military, but that was a way for me to help with the skills I have,” Hudgins said, during a recent telephone interview. “My family wasn’t happy — that was right about the time things started going sideways over there — but I believe in self-determination.”
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On Election Day in January 2005, news outlets around the world ran photos of smiling Iraqis, their fingers stained purple to prevent double voting. Despite nine suicide bombings and multiple insurgent attacks at polling stations, turnout was estimated at 58 percent.
A year later, turnout in the U.S. mid-terms barely topped 40 percent — meaning 6 of 10 eligible voters in the home of democracy couldn’t be bothered to cast a ballot.
“The contrast between (Iraqis) who were literally risking their lives to vote and people who just forgot or didn’t bother was really disappointing,” Hudgins said. “It’s always disappointing to me when turnout is low. I think elections are the most American thing we do. They’re about the voice of the people, about setting a course for the future. They’re the most important piece of the entire democratic system.”
Hudgins is hardly alone in decrying low turnout rates. Over the past 40 years, almost any discussion of the topic has bemoaned America’s weakening sense of civic duty. There’s constant speculation and hand-wringing over who doesn’t vote and why.
Some states are taking steps to turn around their falling numbers. Earlier this year, for example, the Washington Legislature approved a package of bills aimed at removing barriers. Corporate America is getting into the act as well, announcing plans to give employees time off to get to the polls.
But is low turnout really a problem — and if so, who’s responsible for fixing it? What can be done to address the issue, and who benefits?
With four weeks to go before the 2018 general election, here’s the lowdown on voter turnout.
Is low turnout cause for concern?
The answer may depend on who you want at the party, but it’s hard not to be dismayed.
Turnout among the voting-eligible population — meaning U.S. citizens who meet all the legal requirements to vote — peaked at about 80 percent during the latter half of the 19th century. It hasn’t topped 70 percent since 1900, even in presidential election years.
Participation is even worse during congressional midterms. According to the United States Elections Project, which is maintained by Michael McDonald at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla., a minority of eligible Americans now vote in these off-year elections. The last midterm election to exceed 50 percent turnout was 1914.
Turnout in presidential elections has picked up slightly in recent years. After dipping to a 70-year low of 51.7 percent in 1996, it now hovers around 60 percent. In the midterms, the average is about 40 percent.
However, these numbers vary substantially depending on whether you’re looking at registered voters or eligible voters (many of whom don’t register). They also vary by jurisdiction. Nez Perce County, for example, saw more than 88 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election.
Idaho as a whole, though, has seen a steady decline in turnout (see table). After ranking among the top 10 states nationwide during the 1980s, participation in the four general elections since 2010 has averaged less than 50 percent. In primaries, where many races are decided, fewer than two in 10 voting-age Idahoans now cast ballots.
Despite Nez Perce County’s boffo numbers, County Clerk Patty O. Weeks said participation rates prompt “a significant amount” of concern among her fellow clerks.
“Voting is one of those special rights we facilitate, and we want people to take part,” Weeks said. “I’ve always felt it was my responsibility to be convenient and accommodate voter registration. I’d love you to come to dinner. We’re throwing a party and want you to show up.”
If turnout is a problem, who’s responsible for fixing it?
Given how relatively easy it is to vote in Idaho or Washington, some think the onus falls squarely on the nonvoters.
“You can register online or by mail, you can register at the polls. There’s early voting and absentee voting. I think at some point you have to say you’ve done everything you can to make it easy,” said Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney. “Voting is a right, but it’s also a responsibility. I don’t know how you can make people be responsible if they choose not to be.”
Across the border in Garfield County, where turnout typically exceeds 80 percent even in off-year elections, County Clerk Donna Deal said parents make a point of pushing their kids to get registered.
“If you can get people to vote between the ages of 18 and 25, they tend to vote for the rest of their lives,” Deal said. “Our voters want to be involved and engaged. That trickles down from one generation to the next.”
That doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement, though. Deal, for example, said elections officials “need to keep up with modern technology, so we’re getting information to voters in a format they will use.”
Weeks also pointed to Idaho’s absentee ballot law, which requires voters to request a ballot every year. In some other states, voters can submit a single request to get absentee ballots on a permanent basis.
“I do think permanent absentee ballots would help,” Weeks said. “Rolling in vote by mail would also be good.”
But even something as seemingly convenient as voting by mail can be burdensome for certain groups. Quinton Berkompas, president of the Young Democrats of Washington State University, noted that college students frequently change apartments from one year to the next. And if they go home during the summer, their address for the August primary will be different than during the November general election. All that makes it harder for them to keep their registration current.
It also doesn’t help that Washington state has four different voter registration deadlines.
“That confuses people,” Hudgins said. “It’s not a huge barrier, but there’s no reason for it. Registration should be about administering an election; it shouldn’t be a hurdle.”
The point, he said, is that nonvoters aren’t solely to blame. There are some real structural barriers that keep people from voting.
So what can be done?
Hudgins, who chairs the House State Government, Elections and Information Technology Committee, has looked at best practices from around the country, but hasn’t found a silver bullet.
“I’ve been looking for that ‘Holy cow!’ solution, but there’s no one, simple answer,” he said.
Instead, he’s considering a broad array of interventions, each of which can contribute incrementally. In 2018, for example, the Washington Legislature approved three bills that are designed to make the registration process easier.
One of the bills will let voters register on Election Day, beginning next year. Studies suggest this is one of the more effective ways to encourage greater participation. Idaho has had same-day registration since the late ‘90s; figures from the Secretary of State’s Office indicate it boosts turnout in presidential elections by about 4 percent — roughly 120,000 votes — and 2.5 percent in the midterms.
Also beginning next year, Washington will allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote when they get their driver’s license. Right now, they get a license before they can vote and don’t have to renew it for four years.
“So they miss a couple of elections,” Hudgins said. “If they can pre-register, we streamline the process.”
The third bill changes the current “opt-in” registration system — in which voters can choose to register when they get a driver’s license — to an opt-out system where they’re automatically registered unless they specifically say otherwise.
Some private and nonprofit firms also are trying to bring the power of technology to bear on the issue.
New York-based Democracy Works, for example, offers an online database tool called TurboVote, which sends automatic text or email messages to people reminding them of approaching election or registration deadlines.
“The basic goal is to make sure everyone can vote in every election,” said Director of Communications Brandon Naylor.
Seth Flaxman, the company’s co-founder, has been politically engaged his whole life, Naylor said. However, he ended up missing a couple of elections while in graduate school, simply because he was so busy. TurboVote was his solution to that problem.
“It makes no sense that we can rent a movie or connect with friends or go shopping (online) a lot easier than we can interact with our democracy,” Flaxman said in a 2015 article. “The easiest way we can get more people to vote is by modernizing voting for the way we live. My hope is, if we can make voting easier, it will actually wake up people in government about who they need to serve.”
Launched in 2010, TurboVote counts about 300 colleges and universities across the country — including the University of Idaho — among its subscribers.
“We see it as a voter-engagement machine,” Naylor said. “The earlier people start good voting behavior, the longer it sticks with them.”
Other companies are taking some of the stress out of Election Day by giving employees all or part of the day off.
Nearly 150 corporations — including Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Patagonia, Gap and Levi Strauss — announced the “Make Time to Vote” initiative in September.
“This is about recognizing that a vibrant democracy relies on engaged citizens voting, and that businesses can play a vital role in removing barriers,” Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario said in a Sept. 23 New York Times article.
But do these efforts actually work?
Not every turnout initiative earns rave reviews. Case in point: a 2016 Washington law requiring counties to install about 250 additional ballot drop boxes statewide — at an estimated $7,500 a pop — so voters won’t actually have to mail their mail-in ballots.
“That is an egregious example of an unfunded state mandate,” said Whitman County Commissioner Michael Largent. “It involves significant capital and ongoing costs, and gains us nothing as far as participation.”
While election reforms may be beneficial in terms of saving money or improving integrity, David Becker, founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research in Washington, D.C., said they often fail to improve turnout.
“It’s easier to vote in this country than it’s ever been, yet turnout is still at an all-time low,” Becker said. “Two in five eligible voters never show up, even once every four years. We have about 50 million people who show up during presidential elections, but disappear two years later (during midterms). They know where to vote, they know how to vote, but they don’t show up. We don’t really have a good sense for why.”
If you look at voting from a cost-benefit perspective, Becker said, lawmakers and elections officials have taken numerous steps to reduce the cost of voting — expanding the amount of time people have to vote, mailing them ballots, allowing same-day registration.
The problem, he said, is that if people don’t recognize the benefit, the cost can be reduced to zero and it still won’t make a difference.
“We haven’t dealt with the benefit side at all,” Becker said. “We haven’t made the case that, for a very low cost, you can invest in the success of your government. For whatever reason, people have detached the act of voting from the effect government has on their daily lives.”
Over the next few years, Becker hopes to partner with interested jurisdictions to launch a civic outreach effort, testing out different communication strategies. Some voters may receive postcards informing them about approaching registration deadlines. Others might get text messages encouraging them to join their neighbors in voting.
The goal is to see which approach and which messages are most effective at engaging voters — not to turn them out for specific issues or candidates, but to get them to the polls on a regular basis.
“This has to be solved in a nonpartisan way,” Becker said. “The myth is that higher turnout is always good for Democrats, but there’s no evidence to support that. I want more Republican and Democratic voters. Government works best when citizens are invested in its success.”
That ultimately is the message Hudgins tries to convey, both at home and abroad.
“I believe government can change lives,” he said. “The decisions it makes are important, and people have a voice in what their government does. If they don’t vote, they give up that voice to someone else.”
Voter registration deadlines in Idaho
Friday is the last day to pre-register for the Nov. 6 general election. If registration forms are mailed, they must be postmarked by this date; in-person registration is available at the county clerk’s office until 5 p.m.
Idaho also offers same-day registration at the polls on Election Day.
For more information and copies of the registration form, visit www.Idahovotes.gov/voting.