OUR DEMOCRACY NEEDS MORE VOTERS

The United States has very low rates of participation in our “democracy,” which is perhaps most dramatically evident in our very low voter turnout. In our last presidential election – a very visible and hotly contested race – only a bit over one-half (roughly 56%) of those eligible voted. In the upcoming 2018 elections for Congress and state offices, it is likely that only a bit over one-third of those eligible will vote.

This low voter participation is not healthy for a democracy and is inconsistent with our democratic ideals and principles of government of, by, and for the people. Worldwide, most other democracies have higher voter participation; Belgium leads among the 34 advanced democracies at 87% with the US’s 56% in 27th place. [1]

Our voting system, with most voting procedures determined by the states, does little to encourage voter participation. For example, voting on Tuesdays, a work day, has never been convenient for working people. Moving election day to a weekend or making it a holiday would make voting more convenient and almost certainly increase participation. The voter registration rules set by the states have historically set deadlines to register to vote well before election day and required residents to appear in a government office to register, neither of which encourages voting.

In the 2016 presidential election, voter participation varied among the states from 74% in Minnesota and 71% in New Hampshire and Maine, to 42% in Hawaii and 50% in West Virginia. [2] Some states have encouraged voter participation by allowing early and expanded absentee voting, as well as same-day registration.

Many states are putting hurdles in front of potential voters rather than encouraging participation. In most cases, these efforts to restrict or discourage voting have political motivations, usually to reduce voting by groups that tend to vote for Democrats. Some states have reduced early or absentee voting. Some have reduced the number of voting locations, making it more difficult for some voters to get to the polls or resulting in waiting lines to vote, sometimes waits of over an hour.

Thirteen states have imposed more restrictive identification requirements for voting since 2010, typically requiring voters to produce a government-issued ID. It is estimated that 21 million eligible voters do not have a such an ID. So, in the states that require them, voting becomes much more difficult, requiring these potential voters to obtain a government ID in advance of the election. This and other policies that suppress voting are profoundly anti-democratic and have no valid, non-political rationale. [3]

Four states have laws that prohibit Americans who have been convicted of a felony crime from ever voting, even after they have completed their sentences. It is estimated that over 6 million Americans cannot vote because of this felony disenfranchisement.

In general, people who are better-off economically, have more education, and are older are more likely to vote and those who are low-income, young, and non-white are less likely to vote. For example, 41% of registered voters over 70 vote regularly while only 1% of those between 18 and 29 vote regularly.

Research has found that voters and non-voters support different economic policies. Not surprisingly, given their demographics, non-voters are more supportive of policies that promote economic equality and provide a safety net for those experiencing economic hardship. [4] Therefore, getting significant numbers of non-voters to vote would likely change election results and policies.

Some eligible voters don’t vote because they feel that their vote doesn’t matter. Gerrymandering of district boundaries means that indeed some voters don’t matter because the district they live in is overwhelming tilted to a party or ideology that they don’t support. In primary elections, some states require that you be registered in a party to vote in that party’s election. This means that the large number of voters who are independent or unenrolled in a party have no say in deciding which Democrat or Republican will appear on the ballot for the final election.

Some eligible voters feel, with good reason, that our electoral and political systems are rigged in favor of large corporations and employers, as well as the wealthy individuals who are typically the executives or investors in those corporations. Because our election campaigns are almost exclusively funded by wealthy individuals and corporations, and backed up with lobbying and the revolving door of personnel moving between corporations and positions in government, these alienated voters see no difference between the two political parties and feel their voices are inevitably drowned out at the ballot box and in policy debates.

Some analysts make the case that the lack of participation in our democracy and voting reflects not just a loss of faith in government and the efficacy of participation, but also a loss of experience with civic activity more broadly. A decline in volunteer participation in civic organizations and groups in the US has been documented since the 1960s. One study found that from 1994 to 2004 memberships in civic organizations and groups fell by 21%. This trend is likely accelerating. A 2010 census survey found that only 11% of respondents had served on a committee or as an officer of any group or organization in the previous year. Voluntary participation in churches, clubs, fraternal organizations, and labor unions, for example, provide individuals with experience with self-governance, democratic decision making, and participation in civic life focused on building community and working together for a greater good. As participation in local civic life has withered, the orientation to and understanding of the importance of participating in our democratic political process has declined as well. [5]

Higher voter participation would produce elected representatives that more accurately reflect the priorities of the public and, if participation were consistently high, would result in less partisanship and more stable policies. Currently, the Republicans in particular, but the Democrats too, are focused on low turnout elections where they pander to their hardcore supporters, known as their “base.” Therefore, their candidates and those who get elected tend to be focused on appealing to this small group of supporters who often have relatively extreme views. Higher voter participation would require the parties and their candidates to work to appeal to a broader set of voters. This would make a big difference in election results.

I encourage you to ask candidates and elected officials what they are doing to increase voter participation. This is a core issue that we must address if our democracy is to live up to its promise and potential.

[1]      The Sanders Institute, May 2018, “Why don’t Americans vote?” (https://www.sandersinstitute.com/blog/why-dont-americans-vote)

[2]      Khalid, A., Gonyea, D., & Fadel, L., 9/10/18, “On the sidelines of democracy: Exploring why so many Americans don’t vote,” National Public Radio (https://www.npr.org/2018/09/10/645223716/on-the-sidelines-of-democracy-exploring-why-so-many-americans-dont-vote)

[3]      Brennan Center for Justice, retrieved 9/18/18, “New voting restrictions in America,” (https://www.brennancenter.org/new-voting-restrictions-america)

[4]      Khalid, Gonyea, & Fadel, 9/10/18, see above

[5]      Appelbaum, Y., Oct. 2018, “Americans aren’t practicing democracy anymore,” The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/losing-the-democratic-habit/568336/)

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