Why Americans don’t vote (and what to do about it)
Our democracy seems like it’s in chains or stuck in a deep rut.
Much-needed policy discussions that belong in a democracy are cut short and replaced by a new norm which simply excludes debating and replaces it with a partisan approach. This develops hostility leading to a toxic environment of distrust. That’s ripping our democracy apart.
It has become harder to penetrate the flood of information with a simple message that will drown in a big ocean unless it’s equipped to swim. Colorful language and name calling have replaced debate on policy, creating an intended divide. You are a communist if you believe in larger, effective government that resolves problems. You are a socialist if you believe that all people should have access to healthcare.
In this hobbled democracy, where have all the voters gone? You would think that the coming primary election for the important office of governor, with an incumbent and fresh candidates on the ballot, would encourage voter turnout. Yet, some forecasters speak of only a 15% voter turnout. Lower than usual.
However, low is the new norm and that is undermining the functionality of our democracy. Getting voters to the ballot box requires they take time and trust in the system. It helps to pay tribute to important campaign themes, like clean water and air, education, abortion issues, broadband, pensions, firearms, clean energy, and infrastructure.
In Kentucky around 70% of the voting-age-population is registered and in last years’ primary close to 24% showed up and 48% showed up in November 2018. That compares to the US where around 60% are registered to vote. Midterm participation is higher 41-53% (1976-2018) and highest in presidential elections with between 51%-58% for the same period.
The states with greater voting ease have very high voter turnouts. Voting by mail, early voting with no excuse absentee option, same-day voter registration are all voting policies that should be implemented in Kentucky too. On-line voting opportunities would really set our democracy on a much better voting track which should be the norm. The US voting record performs poorly compared to highly developed democracies that the US likes to compare itself with.
Based on a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) using 2016 voting, the US placed 26th out of 35 OECD members. We would sink to the bottom using the lower voter turnouts of other years.
It hasn’t always been like this. Historic data from vital statistics of American politics, using voter-eligible-population turnout rates, shows that during a period from 1790 to 1838 more people voted during midterms than in presidential elections. Further from 1838 to 1912 voter turnout in presidential elections was much higher, mostly 70%-80% - the OECD level. Hereafter brief periods with close to 65% voter turnout were seen from 1950 to 1970. Those were times where people believed in their government and could identify with issues and ethics.
The thickening wall of negative ads that have become the foundation of political campaigning in the US, and all funded by tax cuts for the corporate sector, are mentally exhausting. Physically, more and more people have a real hard time scheduling voting between 2-3 jobs. Like many countries with high voter turnout, campaign periods should be kept short, funding of political campaigns made independent of corporate money and voting on-line optional. We need visionary leaders who include chances for all and dare to interact. Without this, our democracy may be headed to death row.
The inconsistency, the one step forward and two steps back is a working strategy to keep people from voting as they lose trust, and nothing will ever change for the better of the democracy. We need for our democracy to become unstuck. Let the goal be to restore bipartisan behavior, ethics and continuity – that’s how democracy is maintained and that’s how progress happens.
Kris O’Daniel is a farmer in Springfield. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org