The Current Status of Voting in the United States

Posted on September 26, 2016 by Alan Miller


Voting is a fundamental right in American society—the foundation of our democracy.  By expressing our views through voting, we can help ensure that our government develops and implements good policies and protects our civil rights.  And votes do count: In 2000, President George W. Bush won the presidential election by taking Florida with a margin of just 930 votes of the six million casts.  Voting is just as important to people with mental disabilities as it is to everyone else.  Yet their voting rights are widely misunderstood.  As a result, they are often disenfranchised—by unwarranted concerns about their competence to vote, by inappropriate challenges to prevent them from voting, by refusals to provide or permit help with voting or by help that disregards the voter’s own choices.

Voting is the cornerstone of a democracy but sadly far too few people vote.  For the past three decades voters have been disproportionately of higher income, older or more partisan in their interests.  Parallel to participation gaps are widening gaps in wealth, reduced opportunity for youth and frustration with the polarization in politics.  How would our world be different if everyone participated?

There are large gaps in who gets contacted in an election campaign. Millions of Americans, especially those served by the nonprofit sector, report not being reached by traditional campaign tactics like a phone bank.  A fact that stands out in the literature is the powerful influence of families in voter and civic participation.  As service providers and advocates, we can be too.  New voters need our help finding their poll, a number to call for help, learning their voting options and understanding what’s on the ballot or the impact of this election on the issues they care about.  It’s also true that communities who have been traditionally underrepresented in the democratic process often face significant barriers to voting, both discriminatory and inadvertent (we move a lot).  It is these people who are least likely to understand the process that we serve.

The independent sector depends as much as any on good government and fair and open elections. Democracy is something we can’t take for granted. It needs our help. Nonprofits are more likely to thrive in an environment where government is held in higher esteem and people are more likely to participate in and trust democracy; voting matters both to the health of the American political system and to the people who participate in it.

Elected officials know who votes. If your community is turning out well below other neighborhoods, elected officials will pay less attention; make fewer appearances and fewer appeals to your neighborhoods.  Those who vote have a powerful impact on public policy and government. Your constituents have policy and political concerns – whether the direction of an issue or priorities of public budgets – that won’t be heard if they don’t vote.

People who vote are associated with a host of positive civic, health and social factors. Among the most studied are that voters are known to be more engaged in other activities like volunteering or contacting their election official.  They are more informed about local affairs and a contributor to their neighborhood’s “social capital.”  Voters live in communities where there is more trust and people have contact with their neighbors.  They are more concerned about their communities and peers and have a greater sense of their ability to impact the world around them.  While these are correlations that work both ways, voting is an important part.

The history of voting rights is not yet over. Even today, the debate continues. One of the most heated debates is whether or not convicted felons who have served their time are allowed to vote. Today, a handful of states bar convicted felons from voting unless they successfully petition to have their voting rights restored. Another controversy—currently being discussed in San Francisco - is whether non-citizens should have the right to vote, for example, in local school board elections. Above all, the Electoral College arouses controversy, with critics arguing that our country’s indirect system of electing a president over represents small states, distorts political campaigning, and thwarts the will of a majority of voters.  History reminds us that even issues that seem settled sometimes reopen as subjects for debate.  One example might be whether the debate about what it means to be a truly democratic society remains an ongoing, unfinished, story.  The Advocacy Committee is currently registering members and staff through the month of September 29th, 2016, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday by the elevator near the Welcome Center on the first floor. 


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