Women aren't showing up to vote. It could lead to disaster in 2024 election.

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Voting is a habit, according to political scientists. Casting a ballot makes it much likelier that someone will do it in the future. The opposite is also true: Skip it once and it becomes a lot easier to skip again.

During the 2024 primary season, there are troubling signs that at a time when policies directly affecting women are being decided in a post-Roe country, women are losing the habit of voting in greater numbers than men.

Women retreating from civic engagement will have enduring consequences that further drive polarization and dysfunction and affect decisions on topics like women’s health.

Consider that only 44% of voters who turned out for the Iowa Republican caucuses were women. In New Hampshire, 48% of Republican voters were women.

These trends stand in contrast from the past several decades that show women participating in slightly higher numbers than their male counterparts. Traditionally, women have consistently registered to vote at a higher rate than men, hitting a record of 74% of women in 2020 (compared with 71% for men).

Census data shows that women have consistently registered to vote at a higher rate than men, hitting a record of 74% of women in 2020 (compared with 71% for men).
Census data shows that women have consistently registered to vote at a higher rate than men, hitting a record of 74% of women in 2020 (compared with 71% for men).

With more than a century since women's suffrage was granted, America might be witnessing a reversal in participation – with increasingly dire consequences for our politics, especially when they come to primary elections where the outcomes of the vast majority of races are increasingly decided. With so many gerrymandered districts designed to protect incumbents and deter competitive general elections, primaries more often than not determine who will ultimately win.

In 2020, 83% of the U.S. House of Representatives was elected by only about 10% of voting citizens in primary elections. Put another way, although tens of millions of citizens cast ballots in the general election, all but 74 U.S. House seats (out of 435) had already been determined in the earlier primaries. Only a small slice of the electorate decided who was put in office that November.

Low voter turnout drives political polarization

Whether it’s Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., on the right or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., on the left, deeply red and blue districts with low voter participation are driving political polarization and, in turn, extreme policy positions such as total bans on abortion or, the converse, abortion-on-demand up to birth.

Most women are most concerned with issues that affect the well-being of their families and themselves − from topics like health care and equal pay to education and child care. These basic issues get crowded out by the fringes, who are more interested in personal “brand-building” and viral media moments rather than governing and compromise.

It remains to be seen if what's happened so far in 2024 is an aberration rather than a harbinger of a male-dominated politics. After all, with a maze of primary election dates and formats, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t know when your state’s election day is or whether your vote even matters.

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The primary process is anything but straightforward. In South Carolina, Democrats voted on Feb. 3 and Republicans will vote Saturday. In New Hampshire, the Democratic Party refused to recognize the primary ballot, one that President Joe Biden wasn’t listed on but still won through write-in contributions.

In Nevada, the Republican Party prevented candidates who added their names to the state’s primary from participating in the party’s caucuses, meaning that citizens could cast their votes for Donald Trump in the caucuses but not the primary and Nikki Haley in the primary but not the caucuses.

There is also broad dissatisfaction with the choice we are likely to face at the top of the ticket in November – with a historically unpopular incumbent and a GOP front-runner facing multiple indictments for federal and state crimes. In fact, a recent poll conducted by Reuters put a spotlight on Americans’ unhappiness with the looming Biden vs. Trump ticket, with 67% saying they are "tired of seeing the same candidates in presidential elections and want someone new."

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Younger women are less likely to vote

Where the absence of women voters is especially acute is among younger generations. Largely unaware of the significance of primary participation, only 23% of voting-eligible youth turned out for midterm elections in 2022.

Which is a shame, because when they do turn out, younger voters tend to vote for more independent voices. In this year’s Iowa caucuses, voters ages 17-29 chose the most diversified selection of candidates with a near four-way split among Donald Trump (22%), Ron DeSantis (30%), Nikki Haley (25%) and Vivek Ramaswamy (21%).

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Empowering young women to practice their civic duty by casting ballots is a key element in changing the tide away from polarizing, unpopular candidates. Encouraging high involvement in the earliest years of voting eligibility could help prevent the kind of results found in a comprehensive study published by the Knight Foundation in 2020, which observed that women make up 53% of chronic non-voters. One of the major disincentives cited was a “dearth of knowledge” regarding civic affairs or candidates and a lack of time available to further educate themselves.

“Women don’t have as much free time as men, especially women with children,” one female non-voter from Atlanta told the Knight Foundation researchers. “That’s not a statement, that’s a fact.”

For mothers and professionals, finding time to vote multiple times in a year can be a tall order, but their voices are essential in the democratic process.  Solutions almost always demand crossing the political divide to forge a compromise. Women should recognize that they have more in common with each other than the partisans on both sides would have them believe.

Increasing civic engagement starts with education, especially about the importance of prioritizing primaries. When women vote regularly, they not only hold greater power, they also can pull their local, state and national representatives away from polarization. That’s a habit worth encouraging.

Sarah Chamberlain is the founder of Women2Women, a nonprofit organization that encourages civic engagement and voting for women.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will women vote in South Carolina primary? Trend isn't encouraging