Frank: U.S. voter turnout rates prove unacceptable

The presidential election cycle in the United States is far too long. As comedian John Oliver put it on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” “There will be actual babies born on Election Day 2016 whose parents haven’t even met yet. So everyone pace yourselves.” With all of the hype surrounding an election that’s over a year away, it can be hard to differentiate useful information from news for the sake of news.

On a campus as politically savvy as Geneseo’s, it’s disappointing how few people are registered to vote. I remember going back home to vote in the midterm elections last November. Afterward, I wore my “I voted” sticker to class. When my professor saw this, she asked the class if anyone else had voted—no one else had.

Voting in elections is a freedom enjoyed by too few. According to The Economist, there are only 24 “full democracies” in the world. That leaves 124 countries with either “flawed democracies” or worse. Despite having this privilege, Americans choose not to exercise it time and time again.

In the last four presidential elections—arguably the most important elections in the world—voter turnout has been abysmal. The last time more than 70 percent of the voting age population voted in a presidential election was 1900. That number has been above 80 percent only once since the Civil War.

Other developed countries do not have this problem. According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. is behind 30 other developed nations in voter turnout percentage of the voting age population. The percentage of registered voters who turn out, however, is the seventh highest in the world amongst developed nations. The problem isn’t just that Americans aren’t showing up to vote—it’s that they’re not even registered.

In Oregon, a new law was passed in March that automatically registers all eligible voters. Oregonians can opt out of the program if they choose to. “We have the tools to make voter registration more cost-effective, more secure and more convenient for Oregonians,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said. “Why wouldn’t we?” The law isn’t burdensome for citizens—if they choose not to vote, they don’t ever have to. If they want to vote, there are no hoops to jump through.

Although this would preferably be the case in all states, we still have to register to vote in New York. The deadline to register for the 2015 election is Oct. 9.

Although there are no federal elections in odd-numbered years, local and municipal elections are always important. But if voter turnout for presidential elections is bad, voter turnout for “off-year” elections is pathetic—three quarters of eligible voters stay home on Election Day. According to University of Wisconsin researchers, less than 21 percent of eligible voters voted in 2011 elections. Not only does it reflect poorly on the American people, but it is also a blow to the democratic values that this country’s founders worked so hard for.

It will soon be too late to register to vote in the 2015 elections; but the 2016 election may be the most important in U.S. history. If we as a country want to be known as a pillar of democracy in the world, we need to show that democratic values are important to us by registering for and showing up to vote in elections both large and small.