[Image courtesy of nationalgeographic]
I spend a lot of time on this blog discussing election changes – legislation, court orders, innovations, personnel coming and goings and the like – and as I do I am convinced more than ever that the American system of elections is in constant flux.
However, for the vast majority of people – and especially voters – that flux is invisible, lost beneath far more immediate and important details like families, jobs and all the other realities of daily life. Consequently, every election cycle (especially Presidential elections) sees thousands if not millions of voters trying to re-apply what they remember from the last time they cast a ballot to the current election process.
Fairfax County, VA General Registrar Cameron Quinn has a great term for these voters, courtesy of an interview she did recently in the Washington Times:
She used the term “cicada voters” to describe people who may not have voted in four years — even sometimes more than a decade — but will pop up sometimes during presidential years.
“In a normal November election, we get somewhere between 30 [percent] and 45 percent of voters. Four years ago, Fairfax turnout was almost 79 percent,” she said. “You can intellectually understand that it’s at least two times as hard as other elections. It’s more like a five-time spike due to the unfamiliar voters who require more assistance.” (emphasis added)
This is a really, REALLY important phenomenon to keep in mind – while there is a cohort of habitual voters (who tend to skew older) who vote frequently enough that there are few surprises, a significant remainder of the electorate is made up of otherwise smart, capable people who haven’t memorized or kept up with changes in the election process while they were busy living their lives.
That’s why it’s important that we treat every voter as if they are new – giving them information about how, when and where to cast their ballots and ensuring that the materials they’re given are clear, well-designed and easy to understand.
And, if nothing else, we should be grateful that voters don’t wait seventeen years between appearances.