Election 2012 Participation Data: Key Opportunities Loom for 2014, 2016

This is a guest post from Maggie Duncan, Elections Program Manager, League of Women Voters. This post was originally published on the LWV blog.

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau came out with its much-anticipated data regarding voter participation in Election 2012. (See the data set here.) Thanks to a very helpful analysis by Pew and a breakdown by the Associated Press, we are able to draw important insights into who turned out at the polls – and, perhaps more importantly, who didn’t.

Before we delve into the numbers, it’s important to note that while the Census report provides the most complete data source available for federal election participation, it relies on self-reported information and does not reflect votes cast by military personnel or Americans that vote from outside the United States. Thus, while the data provides one of the more comprehensive views, it is still not a completely accurate picture of overall election participation.

The League believes that when voters fully reflect the diversity of our communities, our leaders – and the public policies they shape – will better represent the needs of all Americans. As the data shows, we still have a long way to go toward reaching that goal.

The Big Picture: Voter Suppression, Confusing Registration Laws Likely Kept Voters Home

Overall, the Census data shows that despite the numerous large voter registration and Get-out-the-Vote activities, overall participation rates were down slightly from 2008. What’s more, voters still do not reflect the diversity of our overall population. In particular, participation among young voters and Hispanics, both major growing shares of the eligible voting population, declined from 2008. In contrast, participation by African American voters was up. One important task will be to ensure African American participation stays up in future election years.

While Census data does not point to specific reasons for the downturn in Hispanic and youth participation, we do know that these groups, as well as African Americans, are disproportionately impacted by the suppression tactics that ran rampant in the years between the 2008 and 2012 elections. Further analysis is needed to tell us what the true impact of election barriers, such as restrictions on groups registering new voters, last-minute purges of voter rolls, changes to voter ID laws, and the confusion associated with the entire voting process, really was in 2012.

For example, pre-election data showed that 44 percent of young people were unsure of the photo ID law for voting in their states, 61 percent of young voters were unsure of registration requirements in their state, and 51 percent were unsure about early voting options. We may never know just how significant that confusion was in keeping young voters home in 2012.

What’s more, underrepresented communities are more likely to change residences frequently, thus rendering their voter registration out of date potentially several times over the four years between presidential election years. Given our nation’s complex election law patchwork, combined with the widespread confusion that frequently confounds voters, it is no surprise that more than 100 million potential voters were left on the sidelines.

A Look Ahead

The data is clear: with millions of eligible citizens left out, voter participation remains skewed and does not fully include the very groups who represent growing shares of the eligible voting population.

Looking ahead to 2014 and 2016, three things are clear:

1. We must continue to fight back against the destructive effects of voter suppression while also urging full compliance with and protection of important federal laws like the National Voter Registration Act and the Voting Rights Act.

2. We must keep working to enact pro-voter reforms that actually make sense for voters. These include expanded early voting, online voter registration, better polling place management, and permanent, portable voter registration. Positive reforms, like those passed in Florida last week, can help streamline our nationwide election system.

3. We must continue to provide modernized opportunities for Americans of all backgrounds to register to vote and update that registration when they move. This means the continued hard work of independent voter registration groups like the League, who are particularly effective in reaching underrepresented populations, continued groundbreaking collaborations like National Voter Registration Day, and better partnerships between voter registration groups and elections officials at the local level.

Between elections, many organizations, including the League of Women Voters, remain committed to developing high-impact, nonpartisan programs to register and turn out voters of all backgrounds. Here at the League, our focus has been on reaching and protecting the rights of voters who are least likely to have ever registered to vote and who are, at the same time, the most likely to be negatively impacted by voter suppression laws.

Through our groundbreaking High School Voter Registration Project, highly effective naturalization ceremony registration programs for new citizens, our strong track record of fighting on behalf of voters’ rights, our award-winning website, VOTE411.org and other efforts, we have helped millions of voters participate in our democracy. This Census report underscores how very important our work continues to be.

Rooted in the movement that secured the right to vote for women, the League of Women Voters is a non-partisan organization that encourages informed and active participation in government by working to educate voters and to increase understanding of major public policy issues, including protecting and engaging voters, reforming money in politics, and defending the environment.

Related Stories:

Attacks on Voting Rights: A Midterm State Legislative Report

2012 Election Was a Historic First for Black Voters

Blacks, Hispanics Waited Almost Twice As Long To Vote As Whites In 2012



Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Fi T.
Past Member 4 years ago

When is equal opportunity possible?

Ken W.
Ken W4 years ago

Damn the GOP full votes ahead ----- 2014 & 2016 !!!!!!!!

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L4 years ago

It is our Constitutional right to vote AND it is our DUTY to do so; unfortunately too many Americans ignore their responsibility. So…voting should be mandatory for every eligible 18 years and older citizen. Election Day should turn into election days Friday night through Monday night, Monday the final day a national holiday for all to vote and celebrate our right to vote. Friday through Sunday should be mandatory for all eligible voters to attend workshops at community colleges or on-line to be informed of the candidates and propositions and Amendments to consider. There should be reading materials available in the press and internet for 6 months prior to election with independent fact checks. Any politician lying in any pre-election venue should be automatically disqualified.

Registration for ALL elections should be done on a secured federal data base and should be tied into our SS number and BYW all SS cards should be plastic with our pictures to be renewed every 5 years w/our finger prints on file. Our post offices should be turn into voting places with federal employee’s monitoring the process and voting should be done on-line on secured computers only used for this purpose. Any changes in districting should be done by an independent organization like the LWV.

Marianne Good
Past Member 4 years ago


Lynn C.
Lynn C4 years ago


Tim C.
Tim C4 years ago


Kay Martin
.4 years ago

continued from previous comment posted... I hate that this keeps happening. What do I need to do to get all of my thoughts posted. do I have to break up my comments into many small ones. or what let me know when some one figures it out.. as I was saying If we want to send our absentee ballot by mail instead of over the internet, we should be allowed if we send it registered return reciept requested and signed. and Until this happens, we can never have a fair and free election in these United States of America. I hope everyone wakes up and starts demanding change in our voting process......period.

Kay Martin
.4 years ago

Thank you for the informative article and the many comments, some nice and helpful and some nasty and mean spirited. Right now I think the problem with the young voters is that the republicans are trying to make it impossible to go to the polls at your college you attend and vote there. Because the republican state legislatures (house and senate) have made illegal laws that say no student can vote at their college they must go home to the state they came from to vote, but they are not registered there, they are registered at the college. so what do they do, they can not vote at home and by the time they go to trial to appeal the decision the election is over. and they have to start all over again. The second problem is the elderly voting. The republicans make it so difficult to stand in line for hours on end, some elderly try to register to vote absentee ballot. The rules that the republicans put in your way to get that done is horrible., between the papers to fill out , going in person standing in line at register's office. (If I could stand in line) I would do it at the polls on election day( .Stupid, Republicans) I am getting the permit to vote absentee because of health issues so do not make it worst. or harder to obtain this card. Everyone should be given the where with all to obtain a voter registry card, and everyone should be able to vote on line with protection or submit a written ballot by certified letter, return receipt requested and s

Darren Woolsey
Darren Woolsey4 years ago

I think it would be interesting to see the amount of funding that goes into elections, to be spread evenly across all parties, as it's clear that some parties spend multi-billions on the campaigning, and it's this type of marketing that seems to make a difference, whereas some parties simply cannot afford the marketing, but I bet they might have some radical new policies to make things a lot better for more people in society.