Voter Registration Is the Real Resistance

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Mayra Rodriguez, right, assists a man with a voter registration form at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department in 2016. 

The 2018 midterm elections will test whether resistance to President Trump and anger over his policies can turn out enough progressive voters to buck both the orchestrated assault on voting rights and historic midterm election voting trends.

From partisan and illegal gerrymandering to onerous voter-ID laws to the absurd Presidential Commission on Election Integrity, the Trump administration and red-state lawmakers are working on many fronts to prevent and dissuade large numbers of eligible voters from exercising their most fundamental constitutional right. The target of these efforts—single women, millennials, and minorities—are the three groups of Americans most at risk of disenfranchisement and the most likely to support progressive causes and candidates—but only if robust registration efforts reach them.

Single women, millennials, and minorities—the Rising American Electorate (RAE)—make up nearly 59.2 percent of eligible voters. But these citizens don’t register to vote or turn out in proportion to their share of the population. In 2016, even though they accounted for nearly six in ten members of the vote-eligible population, the RAE made up a little more than half (52.6 percent) of the total electorate.

This majority believes in access to health care, equal pay, paid family leave, and affordable education. They have the numbers to elect politicians to pursue this agenda, but only if they make it onto the rolls and to the polls.

These are the same Americans who are being targeted by efforts to purge the voting rolls. Historically, they are also the voters who turn out in presidential elections but are the most likely not to vote in midterm elections. New research released by the Voter Participation Center and Lake Research Partners predicts a steep drop-off of RAE voters in 2018 compared to their 2016 participation levels.   

According to our projections, over one in three (35.1 percent) of the RAE voters who turned out in 2016 will not turn out in 2018. Overall 25.4 million RAE voters are expected to drop-off, compared to only 14.4 million non-RAE voters. This drop-off is expected to be highest among millennial voters and unmarried women, reflecting patterns seen in 2010 and 2014. We estimate that 33.4 percent of unmarried women will drop off in 2018, accounting for 11.1 million missing votes. Among millennials, 54.1 percent will drop off, accounting for 17.2 million missing votes. African Americans and Latinos are expected to lose 5.2 million votes (30.3 percent) and 4.6 million votes (36.5 percent), respectively.

These 25.4 million missing RAE voters have the ability to change elections across this country, especially in battleground states. In 2016, 50.5 percent of all voters in 12 battleground states—Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin—were members of the RAE. Yet, of all the voters likely to sit out the 2018 elections in those battleground states, over 60 percent are members of the RAE, accounting for 8.7 million votes.

In Virginia, where millennials, unmarried women, and minorities make up 60.1 percent of the population, nearly half of the RAE voters who participated in 2016 are expected to skip the 2018 election (48.7 percent). In Nevada, where the RAE comprises 62.7 percent of the vote-eligible population, the RAE is expected to only make up 53.4 percent of the 2018 electorate.   

But this underperformance isn’t inevitable for two important reasons. First, some states are changing their laws to make registering and voting easier, which could reduce drop-off patterns. Second, turnout trends aside, the RAE is growing.

As states expand voting options and increase access to the ballot, we may see drop-off rates defy historical standards. Ten states and the District of Columbia have enacted Automated Voter Registration (AVR), and evidence from Vermont and Oregon shows massive jumps in the numbers of newly registered voters as a result. The 2018 midterms will determine whether these increases in registration numbers translate into increases in turnout.

One battleground state to watch is Colorado, a state that recently adopted same day registration, and one of three states to offer voting by mail. While our projections show the Colorado RAE at a 31.2 percent drop-off rate, these new voting laws have the potential to increase RAE turnout.

Registration will be the key to increased RAE participation in 2018. Right now, 35 percent—about 46.5 million potential voters—of the RAE are not registered to vote. Only about 22 percent of the non-RAE is unregistered. Research suggests that there is more to be gained in registering and turning out new voters than in turning out previously registered voters who skipped 2016. Tapping into the potential of these new voters can go a long way toward combatting drop-off.

Part of the solution to stemming drop-off hinges on capturing voter enthusiasm—and given the volatile political climate, voters are paying attention like never before. The cruel policies of the Trump-McConnell-Ryan trio threaten the lives and livelihoods of the RAE by cutting health care, education, nutrition, housing, and other programs. Public opinion research done for Priorities USA, measuring the attitudes of presidential and midterm drop off voters, found cuts in health care programs and increases in health care-costs most concerning. The polling also found these voters concerned about Trump’s unsuitability to be president, and about tax cuts likely to benefit the wealthy. In addition, these voters believe that the 2018 elections will have a “bigger impact on their lives than Trump’s election in 2016.”

Millions of women around the country took to the streets for the Women’s March, and minorities have protested against draconian health care, policing, and immigration policies. Millennials are speaking out against a government that doesn’t value education, or science, and presents them with a bleak economic future. These voters make up the majority of eligible voters, and for the first time in 2016, they made up the majority of actual voters. If our democracy is ever going to deliver on the promise of majority rule, our nation should be focused on expanding access to the ballot, not denying already underrepresented Americans the right to vote, and progressives should be focused on getting these Americans to the polls.

The American Prospect

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