Frankly, this is an odd column for me to write. I’ve never been much of a “better the less of two evils” person, choosing instead to spend most of my presidential voting life writing in names of people who I could identify with politically. (Never had much success and even had the occasional debacle during the 1968 and 2000 elections when two of my lifetime’s worst presidents were elected.) Despite those serious missteps, it still remains damn difficult to pull the lever for someone I know doesn’t represent many, if any, of my interests.
But an odd thing happened after this week’s Boston City Council elections. I read a report that only 14% of my city’s registered voters even bothered to turn out. I had anticipated a low number of voters. The election centered around our city council (a “weak council” city) with only a few contested district seats and one contested city-wide position. So, we aren’t talking about much excitement. But 14%? That got me thinking.
We pride ourselves on being a democracy (despite operating under a number of anti-democratic institutions like the Electoral College and Supreme Court). Yet, by and large, the citizens of this great, exceptionalistic country don’t give a shit about who has their hands on the reigns. Or, for many, a foot on their throat.
This week I watched Bill Maher excoriate people who don’t vote. He used the recent local elections and ballot questions to blame sushi-eating liberals for Republican victories (Kentucky gubernatorial, Virginia’s legislature, marijuana questions, etc). Problem is, Mr. Smug Righteousness is all wrong. It’s much larger than any single group.
Fact is, almost half of our registered voters don’t bother to vote in national elections. Only about 65% of the US voting-age population (and 71% of the voting-age citizenry) are even registered, according to the Census Bureau. If we want to dig a bit deeper, the following represents the stated reasons for lack of participation (and believe me, you don’t want to compare our voting behavior to other industrialized, not-so-special-democracies because we look pretty dismal).
Okay, let’s just ignore the sick and/or disabled, those who are out of town, who don’t know, have transportation issues, forgetfulness, and people who face inclement weather on election day. Even with these subtractions we’re left with a huge percentage of people who just don’t give a damn. Voter turnout in the United States is among the lowest in the developed world. Only 42 percent of Americans voted in the 2014 midterm elections, the lowest level of voter turnout since 1978.
Also worth noticing—in the 2012 election, there was a 33 point gap between the turnout rate of the highest income bracket ($150,000 or more) and the lowest, ($10,000 or less)
It’s clear that the system is leaving many people out—especially the poor.
Back in the 1960s and ’70s, the question of citizen participation was often discussed by my activist friends—albeit in a different context than these days. We talked about turning our attention to non-voters because we believed the underlying cause was the alienation and anomie people felt toward their government. I still believe that to be true but think it’s much, much worse now than back then. And with even more factors contributing to peoples’ estrangement.
First the obvious. However you want to cut it, whether it’s the one percent vs. the ninety-nine or the ten vs. the ninety, it’s crystal clear that our government is functionally controlled by the smaller number. And it doesn’t take a weatherman to know that those who control are not using the government to benefit the many, but rather the few. Of course, non-voters experience this. All they have to do is look at their lives.
Adding to the problem, there’s a vocal segment of the population who think they don’t want government at all. They’re best represented by the fools who wave placards demanding, “KEEP GOVERNMENT HANDS AWAY FROM MY SOCIAL SECURITY.” And there’s at least one political party who caters to the notion that almost any government is too much government. That party’s hypocrisy is never more evident than when a disaster strikes their home communities and, despite voting against government assistance to places that aren’t theirs, stick out hands demanding federal aid.
Pile onto this clusterfuck the fact that the other party is just as controlled by those of actual power as the first. It’s really no accident that the only candidate who rails against the one or ten percent identifies himself as an Independent.
Then there’s the recent proliferation of Voter ID laws, which many states have put in place to prevent so called fraud. Since 2008, 17 states have enacted laws requiring citizens to prove who they are at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. But getting an ID can be costly when you’re just getting by. A Government Accountability Office report found that it costs between $5 and $58.50 to get an ID in states that require it. These added barriers affect the voting participation of the poor, elderly, young adults and minorities the most.
So why vote? Truthfully, I don’t have any great answers. In fact, the best I can do is muster the idea of “self-defense.” Not even defense against the worse of two evils, but rather to stop our ongoing slide toward becoming a country that needn’t even bother with elections.
“That’s absurd! We’ll always have elections. This is America!”
Maybe so. Perhaps we’ll always have elections if for no other reason than to pretend we’re a democracy. Perhaps. But remember my town, Boston, is called the “Cradle of Liberty.” Tell me what you think about elections when only 14% of your town bothers to vote.
Democracy is based upon the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people. ~ Keep Hope Alive