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% of young people were unsure of the photo ID law for voting in their states, 61% of young voters were unsure of registration requirements in their state, and 51% 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.