Last week important elections took place throughout the country, and if voter turnout is any indication of the future of U.S. democracy, we are in a world of hurt.
In my part of the world, Charlotte, NC, we held elections for Mayor, City Council, School Board, and school bond issues. Only 18 percent of eligible citizens voted. In a city of roughly one million, and over a half million registered voters, less than 100,000 adults voted for either mayoral candidate. In New York City the mayor’s race drew only 24 percent of voters. The turnout in New Jersey was a record low for a Governor’s race with only 38 percent voting. The good news is that turnout beat the 24.5 percent who voted in the special election for U.S. Senator only a few weeks earlier. In Virginia the two major candidates spent millions of dollars and most every high-profile politician in the country made an appearance, but the gubernatorial race still failed to generate a 50 percent voter turnout.
The turnout wasn’t affected–yet–by more restrictive voter ID laws. People just didn’t bother or care enough to vote. We’ve heard lots of political rhetoric and wailing and gnashing of teeth since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act and various state efforts to require some form of ID to vote. I applaud the efforts to stop making voting harder, especially for the poor, minorities, and the elderly–the not so veiled purpose of the recent wave of new voter ID laws.
But very little is being said about a much bigger problem than voter fraud or photo IDs–voter indifference. In the last presidential election voter turnout was less than 60 percent, which in itself is shameful; but last week’s numbers should give us all pause to wonder what is going on. We’re talking about local and statewide elections, elections that directly affect individual citizens.
It’s easy for political pundits to look at the numbers and use the alarmingly low turnout rates to justify their own political views. Democrats might argue that by shutting down the government Republicans caused frustration with all politicians and a “what does it matter” attitude toward elections. Republicans might argue that Obamacare shows how ineffective and inefficient government is. Everyone probably has an opinion as to why people aren’t voting based on their own view of what’s wrong, but in reality there are no simple answers, and more importantly no simple solutions.
I grew up in an era and a part of the country, the deep South, where the right to vote was a hard-earned commodity. People were beaten, tortured, and even died so others could walk into a voting booth. I worry that many have forgotten that history, or don’t see the relevance of voting in their lives today. Have parents and teachers neglected to teach the basic tenets of democracy? Have they forgotten the reason for the United States’ very existence?
I had the honor and privilege to be a mayor and a city director, so I know the importance of local government and how the decisions made at a local level directly affect one’s quality of life. No political race should be too small or not important enough. It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out that winning a political race by a few votes, when hundreds of thousands didn’t vote, is hardly a mandate for one’s platform or agenda. When the voter turnout is in the teens or even 50 percent, elections are easily skewed in favor of the rich and powerful who turn out their particular voters with money and fear tactics.
Only when a vast majority turns out for an election do we have a true representative democracy. When turnout numbers are in teens and twenties, elections are becoming more like opinion polls. The problem is the margin of error often becomes the margin of victory.
This year’s election turnout numbers should serve as a wake-up call. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents need to be asking the tough question: Why are voters so indifferent and how do we change that attitude??
We face problems such as an education system that by all accounts is failing, financial deficits that require almost impossible choices, and a crumbling infrastructure…the list goes on and on. How can any government address these pressing issues when its citizens’ only expression of opinion is reflected by a no-show on voting day?? No wonder we get egregious pork inserted in every bill passed by Congress. Politicians want to be re-elected, and to get re-elected they quickly learn to care about what the actual voters want, not about those who don’t vote.
Voter indifference easily can lead to small, well-organized fringe groups controlling government. History tells us where such results can take a nation and the world.