Citizen Participation in the Political Process

Standard 4.5: Citizen Participation in the Political Process

Describe how a democracy provides opportunities for citizens to participate in the political process through elections, political parties and interest groups. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T4.5]

FOCUS QUESTION: How Have the Rights and Opportunities for American Citizens to Participate in Their Government Changed Over Time, Including Today?

Polling Place New York City 1912
Polling Place, New York City, 1912
Image from E. Benjamin Andrews - Andrews, History of the United States, volume V. Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York. 1912 | Public Domain

Democracies depend on the active and informed involvement of their members, what Standard 4.5 calls “citizen participation in the political process.” If only a limited number of people participate, then democracy gives way to a system of government where elites, special and powerful interests, and unrepresentative coalitions make decisions for everyone else.

Although there is no right to vote explicitly set forth in the Constitution, voting is the most commonly recognized form of citizen participation. Yet, since the first colonists arrived in North America, women and men in this country have struggled to gain the right to vote. Before 1790, only White male property owners 21-years-old and older could vote, although New Jersey allowed some women to vote until 1807.

Voter participation expanded dramatically in the early 19th century when White men no longer had to hold property in order to vote. Voting rights for African Americans were established by the 15th Amendment in 1870.  Native Americans gained the right to vote in 1924 (although the final state to allow Indians to vote was New Mexico in 1962).

Learn more at a U.S. Voting Rights Timeline (Northern California Citizenship Project, 2004), a timeline of the History of Voting in America (Office of the Washington Secretary of State), and by visiting the resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki page about Voting Rights in Early 19th Century America.

Voting rights for women were established by the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, but women had been voting in some places for a long time. Women voted in New Jersey from 1797 to the early 1800s. They were granted the right to vote in the territories of Wyoming (1869) and Utah (1870). Voting rights for women are explored at Rightfully Hers: Woman Suffrage Before the 19th Amendment from the National Archives.

During the 1872 Presidential election, Virginia Minor, an officer in the National Women’s Suffrage Association, challenged in court voting restrictions against women.  

Virginia Louise Minor Between 1850 and 1893

Virginia Louise Minor Between 1850 and 1893
Credit: Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain

The first part of Virginia Minor’s case was heard in the same courtroom in St. Louis, Missouri where the Dred Scott case was argued in 1847. Minor v. Happersett (1875) eventually went to the Supreme Court that ruled the Constitution did not grant women the right to vote (Virginia Minor and Women's Right to Vote). Virginia Minor’s activism added momentum to the suffrage movement. By the time of the passage of the 19th Amendment, women were already voting in 15 states (Centuries of Citizenship: A Constitutional Timeline).

Today, even given the long struggles to gain the vote, only a relatively small percentage of people actually participate in national, state, or local elections. Just 55.7% of the voting-age population cast ballots in 2016 Presidential Election (Pew Research Center, 2018).

What influences citizens to participate in the political process through voting? The modules for this standard examine this question by first assessing why people do and do not vote before reviewing how secret ballots, poll taxes, literacy tests and modern-day voter suppression laws have impacted people’s voting behaviors and voting rights. A third module asks how the United States might get more people to vote, especially young people. 

1. INVESTIGATE: Who Votes and Who Does Not Vote in the United States?

Elections in the United States are decided not only by who votes, but by who does not. FairVote, an election advocacy organization, estimates only about 60% of eligible voters cast a ballot in a presidential election while as few as 40% vote in midterm elections. Turnout is generally even lower in local or off-year special elections (Voter Turnout Rates, 1916-2018, FairVote).  

Voting Sign 2016
Vote Here Sign by Jay Phagan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In 2016, Donald Trump won the Presidency even though he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2,864,974 votes (other candidates received 7,804,213 votes as well). These vote totals mean he was elected President by a little more than a quarter of the eligible voters. View the election results on this interactive map.

In many districts around the country, the number of non-voters actually exceeded the number of people who actually voted. Here is a map of the United States that shows non-voters in the 2016 election. 

Voter participation in the United States is lower than in many other countries around the world—Belgium, Sweden and Denmark all have voter turnout rates of 80% or higher. However, Switzerland however consistently has a very low voter turnout—in 2015, less than 39% of the Swiss voting-age population cast ballots for the federal legislature (Pew Research Center, 2018).  

Those who vote in this country tend to have more education, higher income, are older in age, and are more likely to be married. Young people, ages 18 to 30, are the least likely group to vote with a rate of 44%. By contrast 62% of 31- to 60-year-olds and 72% of those 60 and older vote. Other facts of note include:

Non-voters give different reasons for staying away on election day. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the reasons why registered voters do not always vote include:

Do these reasons apply to people in Massachusetts? What other reasons might people have for not voting? 

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Civic Action Project
    • Design a proposal, podcast series, social media campaign, or PSA to encourage more people - especially more young people - to vote.
  • State Your View
    • Is Voter Apathy or Lack of Voter Access the greatest barrier to people voting in this country?  
    • What evidence can you cite to support your opinion?
  • Analyze Election Results
    • Political scientists have identified multiple reasons why people voted for Donald Trump in 2016. What is your view?
      • People voted for Trump in response to issues of race and religion. Studies show support for Trump strongly correlated with negative views and overt racial hatred toward Black and Muslim Americans as well as immigrants.
      • People voted for Trump in response to issues of economic and technological change. Studies show strong support for Trump in communities hard hit by declines of manufacturing jobs.
      • People voted for Trump in response to media coverage of the election.
      • People voted for Trump based on religious views. 84% of evangelicals voted for Trump as did 60% of White Catholics.

Online Resources for Women's Suffrage, Voting, and Not Voting

2.UNCOVER: Secret Ballots, Poll Taxes, Literacy Tests, and Voter Restriction Laws

The modern-day image of a solitary citizen going behind a screen or curtain at a voting booth (like the one pictured below) to cast a secret ballot is not the way voting happened for much of United States history (The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, 2020). 

Voting Booths for an American Election

Voting Booths for an American Election
Public Domain Image from the George W. Bush Presidential Library

In the 18th and 19th centuries, noted historian Jill Lepore (2008, 2018), voting was done in public, sometimes by voice, or by a show of hands, or by tossing beans or pebbles into a hat. Paper ballots were only used in some states - Kentucky had voice voting until 1891.

Paper ballots, noted Lepore, were known as "party tickets," printed by political parties (Lepore, 2008, para. 3). Fraud and intimidation were rampant, especially in urban centers where political bosses dominated local politics. According to Lepore, "In San Francisco, party bosses handed out “quarter eagles,” coins worth $2.50. In Indiana, tens of thousands of men sold their suffrages for no more than a sandwich, a swig, and a fiver" (para. 23). 

Reform came with the introduction of the Australian ballot or secret ballot. In 1856, the country of Australia began requiring the government to print ballots and local officials to provide voting booths where individuals could vote in private and in secret. The Australian ballot made its way first to England and then to the United States.

Massachusetts passed the nation's first statewide Australian ballot law in 1888. By 1896, "thirty-nine of forty-five states cast secret, government-printed ballots" (Lepore, 2008, para. 27). At that time, 88% of the nation's voters voted, however, the numbers have been declining ever since.

Paradoxically, government printed ballots were harder to read "making it more difficult for immigrants, former slaves and the uneducated poor to vote" (Lepore, 2008, para. 25). Many southern states embraced the reform, helping to limit Black men from voting.

Since that time, and even while constitutional amendments, court cases, and state and federal laws expanded the right to vote, Poll Taxes, Literacy Tests, and more recently, Voter Restriction Policies, including Voter Identification (ID) laws were used to limit voting by African Americans and other people of color in many states (Berman, 2015). Carol Anderson (2019) has documented this history in her book, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.

Image preview of a YouTube video
Watch on YouTube https://edtechbooks.org/-qIj

What voter suppression policies have been used historically, and in some cases are still being used today, to block voter rights?

Poll Taxes

A Poll Tax is a fee charged to anyone seeking to vote in an election. Poll taxes have been used as a way to keep people who could not afford to pay the tax, particularly African Americans in the South, from participating in local, state and national elections. Poll taxes were outlawed by the 24th Amendment in 1964.

The Poll Tax in the United States 1868-1966

The Poll Tax in the United States, 1868-1966
Posted on Wikimedia Commons by SnowFire and licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

Learn more about poll taxes in United States history:

Literacy Tests

In political settings, a literacy test is an exam used to assess a potential voter’s reading and writing skills as well as civic and historical knowledge. Officials made the questions so difficult that hardly anyone could pass.

Connecticut was the first state to require a literacy test; it was intended to keep Irish immigrants from voting. In the American South, literacy tests were used to prevent African Americans from registering to vote. 

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended the use of literacy tests (Literacy Tests and the Right to Vote).

Voter Restriction Policies

Although restrictions on voting by race or gender is no longer allowed by law, voter restriction policies are in place in many states that limit people’s access to voting.

New Hampshire Voting Place Sign 2013

New Hampshire Voting Place Sign, 2013
Posted on Wikimedia Commons by Mark Buckawicki | No Copyright

Widely used voter restriction practices include Voter and Photo Identification (ID) Laws, cutbacks in early voting times and days, and reduced opportunities for people to register to vote.

Proponents claim these laws are needed to prevent voter fraud, although virtually no evidence of such fraud exists (Voter Fraud?  Or Voter Suppression?). For a 2018 example of voter suppression practices, read the following news story: After Stunning Democratic Win, North Dakota Republicans Suppressed the Native American Vote. A Federal Court found North Dakota’s voter identification laws were disproportionately burdensome to Native Americans.

Suggested Learning Activities

Online Resources for Secret Ballots, Poll Taxes, Literacy Tests and Voter Restriction Laws

3. ENGAGE: How Would You Get More People, Especially Young People, to Vote?

Getting more people, especially young people, to vote is a complex public policy problem. There are many proposals and no easy solutions.

Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama Co-Founded the Voter Participation Organization 
"When We All Vote" in 2018
 Credit:  Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Democracy Prep Public Schools

The founders of the Democracy Prep public school network believe they have a successful model for increasing civic participation by students. Democracy Prep serves students in New York City, Camden, New Jersey, Baton Rouge, Las Vegas and San Antonio. Students are admitted to these schools by randomized lotteries which allow for statistical comparisons between student groups. One study found "Democracy Prep increases the voter registration rates of its students by about 16 percentage points and increases the voting rates of its students by about 12 percentage points" (Gill, et al., 2018, para. 1).

The National Education Policy Center urges caution in interpreting these results. Students chose to apply to Democracy Prep so they may have been inclined toward civic participation before attending. The school had abundant resources from federal grants to develop a strong curriculum.

Still, it is important to ask: How Democracy Prep did promote civic participation and voting among its students? Students were encouraged to “feel an obligation to be true and authentic citizens of a community” (DemocracyPrep, 2020, para. 3). As part of their education, students get to visit with legislators, attend public meetings, testify before legislative bodies, discuss essays on civics and government, participate in “Get Out the Vote” campaigns, and develop a senior level “Change the World” capstone project. How many of those actions are happening or could happen at your school?

Voting Reform Proposals 

While it is clear that meaningful changes in the American election system are needed, there is not yet widespread agreement about any specific reform. The following section provides an overview of leading voting reform proposals. What changes are you prepared to support and why?

Expanded Vote by Mail 

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has renewed calls for the United States to expand vote by mail options for American elections.  Presently, there are two ways to vote by mail: universal vote by mail where the state mails ballots to all enrolled voters and absentee balloting where those who are unable to vote in person on election day must request an absentee ballot and state their reasons for doing so. In 2016, 33 million people (one-quarter of all votes) voted using one of these procedures. Voting by mail does not give an advantage to either major political party nor does it increase chances for election fraud (How Does Vote-By-Mail Work and Does It Increase Voter Fraud? Brookings, June 22, 2020).

Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington have universal vote by mail in place. In Colorado, which has had its universal system in place since 2014, fewer than 6 percent vote in person on election day; everyone else votes by mail.

States with absentee ballot rules have strict deadlines for getting a ballot and when a deadline is missed, the individual cannot vote.

Expanded vote by mail proposals include no-excuse absentee voting and extending all-mail elections to every state so everyone receives a ballot in the mail which can be returned by mail or in-person at a voting center (All-Mail Elections: aka Vote-by-Mail, National Conference of State Legislatures).

Image on Pixabay by OpenClipart-Vectors | Pixabay License

Compulsory Voting

In Australia, Argentina, Belgium, Mexico and 18 other countries around the world, it is against the law not to vote. Non-voters face fines and other penalties (22 Countries Where Voting is Compulsory).

Some observers believe that voting should be made compulsory in the United States to get more people involved in the democratic process. Other commentators focus on getting more people registered to vote as a way to increase voter turnout at election time. Presently, in every state except North Dakota, a person must be registered to vote in order to cast a ballot in an election. It is estimated that more than 20% of potentially eligible voters nationally are not registered to vote (Pew Issue Brief, 2017).

Ranked Choice Voting or Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

Ranked Choice or Instant Runoff Voting is being adopted by communities around the country as well as the state of Maine - it is also discussed in Topic 3.4 in this book. The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting explains how it works:

Ranked choice voting gives you the power to rank candidates from your favorite to your least favorite. On Election Night, all the ballots are counted for voters’ first choices. If one candidate receives an outright majority, he or she wins. If no candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated and voters who liked that candidate the best have their ballots instantly counted for their second choice. This process repeats and last-place candidates lose until one candidate reaches a majority and wins. Your vote counts for your second choice only if your first choice has been eliminated. (para. 1)

Expanded Early Voting 

Early voting means that people can vote on specified days and times before an actual election day, making it possible to fit voting into busy schedules while avoiding long lines and delays at the polls. State laws governing early voting vary across the country; includes a state-by-state early voting time chart.

Automatic Voter Registration (AVR)

As of 2020, in 16 states and the District of Columbia, a person is automatically registered to vote when registering for a driver’s license (known as Motor Voter Registration) or interacting with some other government agency—unless that person formally opts-out. Voter Rolls are Growing Owing to Automatic Voter Registration, NPR (April 11, 2019).

Letting Students Miss School to Vote 

Under a law passed in Illinois in 2020 that was initiated by the efforts of high school student activists, students may be excused from classes for up to 2 hours on election day or any day that early voting is offered to vote in general, primary, or special elections. Text of Public Act 101-0624.

Lower the Voting Age to 16 or 17

Lowering the Voting age follows from the fact that in most states, 16 year-olds can get married, drive, pay income tax, get a passport, leave school, work full time, and join a union, among other activities (Teenagers are Changing the World. They Should Be Allowed to Vote). In one third of the states, 17-year-olds can register to vote if they turn 18 by election day. There is more information at The Case for Allowing 16-year-olds to Vote.

Additional Proposals

Additional ideas include same-day voter registration, online voter registration, text alerts reminders to vote, registering young voters at rock concerts and other youth-related events, making voting day a national holiday, and extending voting rights for ex-prisoners.

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Propose Change in Schools
    • What changes in school curriculum and activities do you believe would increase civic participation and voting by young people?

  • Evaluate & Design Voting Reform Proposals  
    • Assess and then rank the previously listed voting reform proposals according to your first to last priorities, explaining your reasons why.
    • Then, design your own voting reform proposal.

Standard 4.5 Conclusion

Voting offers citizens the opportunity to participate directly in democractic decision-making, yet voter turnout in the United States is low with only about 60% of eligible voters casting a ballot in presidential elections, 40% in midterm elections, and often even lower percentages in local elections. INVESTIGATE looked at whether voter apathy or lack of voter access impacts who votes and who does not. UNCOVER examined how poll taxes, literacy tests, and more recently, voter restriction laws, have limited voting by African Americans and members of other diverse groups in American society. ENGAGE asked what steps can be taken to get more people, especially younger people, to vote?

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