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Despite High Turnout, Voter Participation Numbers Still Low

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By Freddie Allen, NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – After get out the vote volunteers finish celebrating their efforts in Tuesday’s presidential election, the United States will still rank lower than most industrialized countries when it comes to voter participation, according to an international poll.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance ranked voter turnout in 169 countries and the United States, the leader of the free world, came in 120th with a 66.5 percent voter turnout rate. And presidential turnout is much higher that off-year elections.

Italy with 89.8 percent was the only member of the G8, the group of the world’s largest economies, to crack the top 20. Germany scored 85.4 percent, followed by the United Kingdom (75.2 percent), Canada (73.9 percent) France (73.8 percent) and Japan 69.5 percent. Only Russia ranked lower than the United States in that group with 58.4 percent.

Australia ranked No. 1 with 94.5 percent turnout rate, penalizing wayward citizens that failed to cast a vote.

As the United States exports democracy around the world, the residents of “the shining city on the hill” fail to exercise one of their most fundamental rights: their right to vote.

Yet, the 2008 presidential election raised the bar for minority participation to 23.7 percent, but fewer Whites voted in 2008 (66.1 percent) than in 2004 (67.2 percent). For all of the history made the night the United States elected its first African American president, according to the Pew Research Center, voter turnout decreased from 63.8 percent in 2004 to 63.6 percent in 2008 (Figures for 2012 are not yet available).

Researchers rattle off a number of reasons for the low voter turnout, ranging from voter apathy to voter repression. State voters’ laws that disproportionately affect minorities and the poor also factor in.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law found that a number of states enforced voters’ laws that confused the poll workers and the voters. The Lawyers’ Committee reported that poll workers in Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, Louisiana, South Dakota Idaho requested photo ID even though it wasn’t required. Florida and Ohio, two hotly contested battleground states, adopted what are considered the most repressive election laws.

Researchers also found that Black voters were asked for identification at the polls at a much higher rate than White, even in states where IDs are not required.

To combat the confusion around the new ID regulations, Civil rights groups ramped up their efforts to educate voters prior to Tuesday’s elections.

“At the Advancement Project we’ve been doing a significant amount of voter education that we haven’t had to do in the past,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the multiracial civil rights group.

While some state laws made it harder for voters to turn out, others implemented the 1993 National Voter Registration Act that allowed residents to register to vote when they renewed their driver’s license. This often increased voter turnout by 4.7 percent. Researchers suggested that allowing voters to register on Election Day could boost voter turnout by an additional 8.7 percent compared instead of enforcing the typical 30-day cut-off point.

Oregon not only allows voters to register online, but also permits them to cast ballots by mail.

When Superstorm Sandy threatened to dampen voter turnout in his state, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie approved a measure allowing voters to cast presidential ballots by fax and e-mail.

Voters’ rights advocates say that the our election system is broken and that it’s going to take more than state regulations and technology to fix the problem.

“It’s going to take public will,” said Browne Davis. “Voting is fundamental to our democracy. We all benefit from a robust democracy that includes all voices. It’s going to take people of color who are the target of these restrictive laws to decide that we’re going to revive the voters’ rights movement. We’re going to continue this work because it’s not going to end on November 6.”

Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that civic engagement is a year-round responsibility of all citizens.

“Being involved in your democracy is not just about Election Day and it’s not just about your vote,” explained Arnwine. “You have to hold council people, senators and state representatives accountable.”

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