For as long as I can remember, a theme of civic life has been the scandalously low voter turnout in national elections. On average 40% of eligible voters don’t vote in presidential elections, about 60% in off-years.
A curious phenomenon, this failure to vote–to exercise the most basic right in what we think of as the fairest method of governing we’ve come up with.
One explanation offered for the failure to vote is simple irresponsibility, laziness. Another popular one is hopelessness: Hey, what difference will my one vote make? (I’ve used this one myself on occasion.)
The irony of the “only one vote” excuse is that the basic unit of power in a democracy, our main way of directly exercising power, in being seen as “only” one , becomes a symbol of powerlessness and futility. Having only one gun in a war you are in the middle of is not experienced as a reason not to use it.
You could see low voter turnout not as hopelessness but in a completely different way: not voting as a vote of confidence in the status quo. A recent story on the front page of this newspaper focussed on low turnout for Cape Cod town meetings. We like to think that one of the coolest things about , say, Wellfleet is our town meeting. It’s often bragged about as the “purest form of democracy.” Purest in sense that the town meeting form of government eliminates the middleman– we citizens are the legislature. At least anyone who shows up. But as the article points out, the percentage of residents required for a quorum is pitifully low; in my town of Wellfleet, 6%. Even lower in some other towns.
Town meeting government may be pure, but with such a small percent calling the shots, is it really democracy?
The article mentioned the attempts to lure people to town meeting by offering inducements such as pizza. All this cajoling and bribing to get people to get people to be interested in running their own lives? What’s going on here?
What’s going on for the most part is complacency. In a small town like ours, it would seem that most people trust the system and their neighbors enough to feel confident that things will be basically OK no matter how town meeting turns out.
That’s at the local level. At the national level at the present moment of ongoing tweet-to-tweet crisis, not so much. Given the polls on Trump’s unpopularity, there should be a much smaller percentage who can honestly make the complacency argument for not voting in the upcoming elections — that things will be OK whoever wins. Many see these midterms as a referendum on democracy, on the democratic system itself.
According to polls, a strong majority of us favor Roe v Wade, gun control, healthcare-for-all as a human right, effective gun control. The president and his helpers are going the opposite direction on all these issues. That disconnect feels—and is—profoundly undemocratic.
The job this election for the majority of voters should be nothing less than to restore democracy by making government express the will of the majority. Until proven otherwise,–fears of hacking, of purging of voter rolls notwithstanding– the vote is our best shot at that.
If other traditional institutions of democracy—the media, the judiciary, the presidency itself, the voting process —are being destroyed or compromised by the President and other leaders, all the more reason to exercise this remaining one. If our vaunted checks -and-balances is not getting the job done, this most basic check, the vote itself , is all the more essential.
The goal for Democratic canvassers should be not an improvement in turnout, of, say, 5 or 10% but 100%. Disaffected millennials and all the rest of the disenfranchised majority need to begin seeing voting not as something as drab as performing a civic duty, but rather pulling the trigger on our main weapon in a democracy.