Want to drive politicians crazy rather than the other way around? Want to reduce the influence of money on our nation’s politics? Just vote.
Want to make a statement about Congress’s failure to get along and deal sensibly with the nation’s problems? Easy: just vote.
Concerned about crumbling schools, bridges and roads? Easy: just vote.
Worried about our nation’s educational system or the burden we put on our kids with student loan debt? Easy: just vote.
Own up to your responsibility as a citizen—get the hint, just vote.
Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, progressive or conservative, gay or straight, religious or not; the one thing candidates for public office are counting on is that most Americans will not vote. In last year’s mid-term elections the national turnout at the polls was 36.3 percent, the worst voter turnout in seventy-two years. Only once in our nation’s history has the voter turnout been worse—1942 during the middle of World War II.
What can we infer from this alarming trend? Maybe voters don’t understand the issues; maybe they don’t think national issues affect them. Or maybe they think their vote is useless, that Washington is indeed broken beyond repair. Or maybe, and this is the scary conclusion, they just don’t care: they’ve given up on democracy.
Last year’s dismal turnout came to pass despite the billions of dollars spent on competitive, well-publicized races in virtually every state. In my home state of North Carolina more than one hundred million dollars was spent during a hotly contested Senate race, yet the voter turnout barely beat the national average. New York’s voter turnout was a shameful 28.8 percent despite three statewide races (including the governorship) and twenty-seven contested races for Congress.
Even as they spend millions of dollars, every campaign counts on the simple fact that only a fraction of us will actually bother to vote. Statistics and research can predict exactly who will vote and how many votes will result in a win. For example, if a campaign knows that only one hundred thousand people will vote in an election, they only have to identify fifty thousand and one who are likely to vote for their candidate and make sure every one of those people votes. Why bother addressing the issues of citizens who don’t vote?
The result is that a candidate can craft a campaign that appeals to twenty percent of the electorate who are likely to vote, regardless of the needs or desires of the remaining eighty percent. Again, why bother with people who don’t vote?
The numbers get much worse for local elections. For example, the turnout for the 2013 mayoral primary in Charlotte was a measly seven percent. Turnout rose to a grand seventeen percent for the general election, despite two very attractive and well-financed candidates. The result? The winner became Mayor of a major US city despite getting the vote of less than ten percent of the eligible voters in Charlotte. A few months later, that mayor resigned after being indicted for public servant bribery. We face another primary in Charlotte in less than a week. The prediction is we may see an increase in turnout for the primary to thirteen percent of the eligible voters. Thus each party’s nominee could easily be a candidate who has garnered as little as seven percent of the electorate.
This type of numerology gives a huge advantage to the candidates with huge war chests. That money allows them to engage in the targeting and organizing necessary to identify their voters and get them to the polls. I hate to belabor the point, but why should the candidates care about the overwhelming number of Charlotteans who don’t vote? Their focus is on the very few who do.
How do we stop our candidates from playing these numbers games? As Mr. Spock might say, it is clearly illogical to think politicians who have come to office under the current system want to do anything of substance to eliminate the influence of money on politics. Nor do those politicians, who are elected by using polling, targeting and surveys, have an incentive to make any changes that might be detrimental to their reelection. For example, if it were easier for everyone to get to the polls, more people might actually vote, and those folks might vote for someone else!
So what can you do? First and foremost, be sure to vote and help remind everyone you know to do the same. Take time to learn about the issues and the candidates running for office. Think about all our citizens, not just your own needs. (I realize that I’m hopefully preaching to the choir here.) Encourage the school systems of this country to devote the entire day of Election Day to teaching our children about the importance of voting. Talk about why we established this country in the first place, how people fought and died to uphold democracy and our right to vote both in wars and in freedom rides in the South.
Maybe, just maybe my hope rests with the children. If they learn that people died and were beaten to help guarantee they have a right to vote, they might consider voting. The sacrifice of early patriots, soldiers and freedom riders seems to be lost on the current population of voters. Seems to me if so many others thought the right to vote is worth dying or being beaten to a pulp, I shouldn’t take voting for granted. Maybe our children will think the same.
Imagine having a voter turnout in 2016 that rivals the eighty percent of the adult population in the Presidential election of 1860—eighty percent. Imagine having the turnout that is normal in most European Union nations’ elections between seventy and ninety percent. Targeting would be useless, and for a change we might have a President that is elected by a majority of the eligible voters in this country rather than the thirty percent that guarantees a victory today.