Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Real Voting Scandal

Last week, I offered a tribute to American democracy, which, for good reason, has long been the envy of the world.  While other nations were subjugated by emperors, kings, czars, and fuhrers, we were electing Presidents.  Peacefully, we’ve transitioned from one political party to the next for well over 200 years.  You don’t have to be a historian to be proud of that record.

But there is another side of the ledger.  When it comes to our record of democracy, our current situation isn’t nearly as impressive as our past.  Team America is a lot like a football franchise that loves to talk about the glory days of yesteryear rather than all the losing seasons they’ve more recently experienced.  But fans don’t want to hear about the past; they want to know when and how their team is going to succeed in the future.  When it comes to something as precious as our commitment to democracy, we Americans should be equally demanding.  

Democrats and Republicans these days are debating who really won the Presidential election – the Republicans, who can boast a 74-vote victory in the Electoral College, or the Democrats, who can tout a popular vote margin of 2.9 million.   In fact, however, the actual winner was “Why bother to vote?  I didn’t.”   That attitude won in a landslide.

Hillary didn’t even capture 30 percent of eligible voters.  Neither did Trump.   By contrast, “Screw this” garnered 45 percent.  In 2012, it captured 46 percent.  According to a Pew study, the corresponding numbers in Australia, Belgium, Turkey and Sweden were 9%, 13%, 14%, and 17%.  For some reason, eligible voters in those countries show up at the ballot box.  

A recent Pew study surveyed voting patterns in 35 developed nations.  When it came to voter participation, the United States finished in the bottom ten.  Notably, of the seven countries that scored worse, four of them had been part of the Eastern Block – so they haven’t exactly developed a culture based on free elections.   We scored well below both of our North American neighbors, not to mention nearly every country in Western Europe.  To be sure, we scored better than Switzerland, but maybe that country is so awash in the fruits of international money laundering that its citizens feel too guilty to vote.  What’s our excuse?  

Poor voter participation, my friends, is the most profound scandal surrounding any recent American election.  Not whether illegal aliens or space aliens voted in large numbers, but why nearly half of eligible American voters consistently don’t care enough to vote.   To their credit, our leaders have made it easier over time for people to cast a ballot.  You can do it on Election Day, vote absentee, or head to a polling place that provides for early voting.  Yet still the plurality stays away altogether.  Why?  

The answer surely reflects widespread alienation among our population.  That’s not too surprising given the articles that have come out this week saying that the Dow Jones has finally reached 20,000, and yet half of the country won’t benefit one whit from this development.   Economists might say that there are two groups of Americans – those who have at least a modicum of net worth and those who don’t, and the second group is essentially as large as the first.  But sociologists might ask whether it’s a coincidence that nearly half of Americans don’t vote.   As Dean Wormer might say, “poor, alienated, and apathetic is no way to go through life, son.”  But when half of your population falls into that category, how can a nation boast about having a vibrant democracy?

There are plenty of ways to incentivize more people to vote.   We could make Election Day a national holiday.  We could create tax consequences for not voting.  We could make voting a condition of retaining a driver’s license.    People wouldn’t have to actually vote to get credit for showing up.  They could simply cast a blank ballot if that’s what they preferred.   So there’s no issue of coercion here.

Believe me, if we wanted our poor people to vote, we’d make it happen.  The problem, I suspect, is that many Americans have no interest in increasing the national percentage of voting participation.   Perhaps an argument could be made that voting is a privilege, one that you deserve only if you demonstrate your appreciation of it.  In my view, however, a stronger argument could be made that a vibrant democracy requires a government that is responsive to all its citizens, not merely the most affluent or energized.  Besides, if we give the non-voters some motivation to cast a ballot, there’s a good chance it will stimulate their interest in voting going forward.   

Already, American democracy is stained by the fact that the residents of its capital city, many of whom move to DC out of patriotism and a commitment to social service, aren’t fully represented in the legislative branch of our government.  Clearly, the reason for that failure is that DC residents would surely elect Democratic Party representatives, and Republicans don’t want to see more Democrats in Congress.  I assume that the same factor is at work in terms of why the powers-that-be don’t want to strongly incentivize more people to vote in national elections.   One party has decided that this would hurt its chances of winning elections, and that consideration has trumped all others.    

We hear a lot these days about the need for a progressive movement that will shake things up throughout the country.  May I suggest that the leaders of this movement, first and foremost, should insist on a commitment to American democracy.   It’s time to talk about the scandal of rampant non-participation among eligible voters, how easy it would be to address this problem, and whether we as a nation would like to see this problem confronted.   I’d much rather hear that debate on TV  than discussions about crowd sizes or “alternative facts.”

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