American history is fraught with stories of populations like women fighting and winning their right to vote. So why don’t more people actually vote in this country? It’s a question a panel set out to address at a Wednesday forum at the Old State House.
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, Common Cause Connecticut Executive Director Cheri Quickmire, and Trinity College professor Stefanie Chambers discussed the issue after Chambers gave a short presentation on the history of the women’s suffrage movement.
Merrill described the current state of voter turnout as a crisis, saying about of a third of the eligible population isn’t even registered to vote. About half of eligible voters actually vote, she said.
Some voter blocs turn out to the polls consistently. Senior citizens, for instance, are the biggest population of reliable voters, Merrill said. She speculated that the folks of the World War II generation feel it’s their civic duty to vote every year.
But times have changed and groups like younger people and some minority groups see voting as less of an imperative, she said. Chambers said women also turnout slightly more often than men.
The fact that women vote more than men and seniors represent the single biggest voting bloc, may contribute to the prominent roles both women’s health issues and entitlement programs have played in this election cycle.
Merrill said modern campaigns reach out to an increasingly small slice of the population. When a campaign can get a list of residents who actually went to the polls in the last few elections, it makes sense for it to spend its resources on those voters.
“That’s your core voter group and it’s a lot less expensive to just try to talk those people and try to get them to vote because you know they’re probably going to vote,” Merrill said.
But the flip side of that sort of targeted campaigning is huge swaths of the population aren’t being engaged in the conversation and lose interest in the process, she said.
“What’s happening is the people who aren’t even registered, nobody’s even talking to them anymore. It’s a real narrowing of who you’re talking to and I think that’s having an impact,” Merrill said.
Chambers said increasing the representation of groups currently underrepresented would strengthen our democracy. If those groups saw more of themselves represented in elected office, it could generate interest in the process from those groups, she said.
“If we had more diversity in our elected office certain groups might be more excited about participating,” she said.
For instance, many people who don’t typically vote came out in 2008 when Barack Obama was running as the first African American presidential nominee, Chambers said. But by the time the midterm elections came around voter turnout had dropped back down.
Chambers said more women in elected office would help make government more of an accurate representation of the population. Though they make up 52 percent of the population, women make up only about 16 percent of the U.S. House and Senate, she said.
“If we flipped that over and saw 85 percent of the U.S. House and Senate were women, we’d probably say that there’s a problem here. Where are the men?” Chambers said.
All three women agreed that reducing the barriers to voting would encourage more people to come to the polls. Quickmire said part of the problem is unlike Connecticut, which has recently enacted significant election reform measures, much of the country is moving in the wrong direction.
Many states have passed legislation requiring voters to present a photo identification in order to cast ballots. Quickmire called the laws restrictive, especially for seniors since many don’t have drivers licenses.
“They’re making it even more difficult for folks to participate,” she said.
Quickmire said her mother recently moved back to Connecticut from a state that required a special voter ID card. Not having an up-to-date drivers license, she said her mother was concerned she wouldn’t be allowed to vote here in Connecticut.
But in this state certain mail items like bank statements and utility bills are adequate to prove one’s identity. Quickmire’s mother brought a bank statement and was allowed to cast a ballot.
“There are lots of challenges that we’re facing around the country but Connecticut doesn’t have many of those,” she said.