This is not what democracy looks like.
Despite America’s much-ballyhooed status as “land of the free and home of the brave,” when it comes to voting, a significant portion of the U.S. population remains unwilling or unable to cast their ballots in elections up and down tickets. A recent report for NPR by Asma Khalid, Don Gonyea, and Leila Fadel entitled “On the Sidelines of Democracy: Exploring Why So Many Americans Don’t Vote” plumbs the depths of this modern electoral reality.
First, a matter of statistics. According to the authors’ data, only about 60% of eligible voters cast ballots in 2016. If 2010 and 2014 are any indication, meanwhile, turnout for midterm elections is only expected to be about 40%. As the NPR piece insists, it can’t be known for sure how many elections might have experienced different outcomes had all or an even a larger majority come out to the polls.
However, as the report is also keen to stress, voting doesn’t just decide winners and losers. It influences what policies candidates enact upon getting into office. What’s more, it affects how these politicians interact with would-be supporters and which interests they appeal to. In other words, rather than depicting campaign platforms as static and resistant to change, Khalid et al. see them as malleable under the right outside pressure.
What’s particularly disturbing about the who, what, and why of voters vs. non-voters is that research shows these two groups have appreciably different views on matters of policy. The findings of Jan Leighley cited within the NPR piece suggest non-voters are more likely to support programs which expand the social safety net and policies which effect a redistribution of wealth.
This is before we even get to the matter of those who can’t vote, whether because of criminal records, registration issues, or other “irregularities.” The authors place this subset of the population in the hundreds of thousands, a significant number when considering some recent elections have been decided by mere hundreds of votes.
But non-voters who can vote and choose not to are at the crux of Khalid’s, Gonyea’s, and Fadel’s piece. Using data from L2, a non-partisan voter file vendor (you can read about the exact methodology in the linked article), NPR analyzed what separates voters from non-voters. Though the specific circumstances vary from place to place, the authors isolated four factors: age, income, education level, and habits.
In talking to young adults from Las Vegas, the common refrain was that they didn’t know enough about politics or even voting, for that matter, to cast ballots. This echoes the findings of Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE, an initiative at Tufts University which looks at youth civic and political participation.
Not only are young people potentially confused about what voting entails, but they are generally pessimistic about its ability to bring about positive change. As they tend to be more itinerant than other age groups, they also feel less connected to the issues affecting where they live. Or they’re “too busy.” Or they don’t feel inspired by many political candidates. Whatever the underlying reason(s), by not voting, young adults are making it that much more likely candidates will opt not to court them in future elections in favor of groups that come out more strongly.
In McDowell County, West Virginia, the issues of class and education loom largest. The median annual income in Welch, WV, the county seat, is only about $25,000 a year. Once again, there’s the perception that no matter who is in office, their county gets the proverbial short end of the stick and is all but ignored by politicians.
Going back to Jan Leighley’s research, class more than any other variable promotes a voting discrepancy; nearly 80% of high-income earners vote, as opposed to only about 50% of low-income earners. As having a college degree makes a person that much more able to secure employment and start a career, it is no wonder education level is a factor as well. Throw in the need to work multiple jobs and other potential responsibilities, and voting certainly stands to be less of a priority.
As for El Paso, Texas, the NPR study found low Latinx turnout. At least in El Paso County, there are specific reasons which may combine to explain why over 60% of registered voters don’t come out to the polls. Part of the reason may be that immigrant families may not be familiar with voting, and that children of immigrants born here may not have had their parents serve as models in this regard. This may help inform why Asian-American voter participation is also low. Additionally, Texas hasn’t been a politically competitive state for decades now. Plus, El Paso doesn’t exactly have a good track record with respect to corrupt public officials, so there’s that, too.
Still, as Khalid et al. show, it’s not just in Texas that Latinx voters are disproportionately staying home, even when candidates for public office like Donald Trump are painting Mexicans with broad strokes as criminals and rapists. In addition to the idea that Latinxs feel a disconnect with the political process—this is emerging as a common theme across demographics—the reality is that voter outreach to non-voters is, as the article puts it, “anemic.” Rather than try to engage non-voters, candidates will plumb voter files for people who do vote frequently and try to reach out to them. This does not bode well for a robust increase in voter turnout.
Perhaps on some level, one sympathizes with political campaigns on this last note. As the NPR article states outright, “It’s more expensive and time consuming to chase down infrequent voters.” Inconvenient as this truth might be, though, it doesn’t provide a solution going forward. This is not meant as a criticism of the report, which appears to be well-researched and incisive. Nonetheless, it’s a limitation, as complex as any potential solution to low voter turnout may be.
Thus, for all the report’s valuable insights, it’s, well, kind of a downer. Maybe this is unavoidable in the face of stark electoral realities, but for those of us seeking an inspired and inspiring path to action, we’ll have to look elsewhere for answers.
My time as a frequent voter and political observer has been admittedly brief. However, rather than take the tack of many to harangue the non-voting among us into submission—Lord knows I’ve received my fair share of vote shaming despite actually going out to the polls—I tend to focus on how the voting process can be reformed and how the major parties should do better given their prominence.
At the risk of oversimplification, a big way to generate more enthusiasm for voting is to produce better candidates who run on genuinely attractive platforms. In this sense, the person(s) behind the campaign are less important than the ideas and ideals they embrace. Why else would Bernie Sanders, a septuagenarian secular Jew from Vermont with a Brooklyn accent, be so popular among people who follow politics, especially young people?
This is, of course, not to say that Bernie’s 2016 campaign and stances were perfect. For instance, his positions on foreign policy issues at times lacked nuance, and his defense of gun ownership and gun manufacturers when gun violence is such a hot topic (mostly because Americans keep getting shot and killed at rates far surpassing those of other developed countries) was characterized as out of touch. I, for one, support his views on not going after manufacturers unless they behave unethically or illegally, but I also recognize his defense of attitudes from a state that prizes hunting as a tradition as a liability for a presidential run.
As some might even aver, Sanders is really a one-issue candidate. That one issue, however, is a central one: widening income/wealth inequality and the dissolution of power and viability of the working class. It’s a problem that some of us can afford to ignore, but the vast majority can’t.
Accordingly, when Bernie talks about these subjects as well as getting money out of politics (the “rigged economy” train of thought), it resonates. Take the example of health care. When Americans have to choose between paying medical bills and buying basic necessities, that’s not merely due to poor choices—it speaks to a broken system. It’s no wonder he and candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who espouse similar views (including advocacy for Medicare for All) have captured the imagination of so many people.
It should be stressed that great candidates don’t just grow on trees. Part of producing better candidates is being able to choose from a deeper pool. I’m not just talking about “diversity” in the narrow sense of ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or other identifying characteristics, though these are important. I mean more individuals with a progressive mindset should be running for office. This is easier said than done when people have families and jobs and lives. You know, better people than me.
Nevertheless, along these lines, party leaders should make the effort to reduce or lower the barriers for civic and political engagement. Part of this is demystifying the voting process and the ability of running for office. While I don’t feel we should necessarily encourage people to make ill-informed decisions, there’s also the matter of other voters caring about one issue or choosing based on ugly prejudices (see also “President Donald J. Trump”). In all, it would appear to be a wash. The same goes with candidates for public office. For every noble statesman or stateswoman to serve in an official capacity, there’s someone who is ill-qualified for their role and/or good for nothing else but running for office (once again, see also “President Donald J. Trump”). As the saying goes, this is politics, not rocket science.
When politicians are not compromised by their obedience to moneyed interests, and when the threshold for political participation is more reasonable (i.e. fewer fundraisers charging several hundred dollars a head), only then, I believe, will we set the stage for a meaningful dialog between elected representatives and their constituents. This includes town hall meetings with residents—you know, ones to which officials actually show and field questions rather than ditching them and complaining about unfair treatment. You ran presumably because you wanted to serve your state/town/what-have-you. Do your job.
I speak about these things in the abstract, realizing full well it is difficult to bring about positive change. To reiterate, easier said than done. It takes time, effort, and cooperation forged through a shared vision. Then again, no one said it would be easy, and furthermore, the desired outcomes are worth the struggle. We as a nation have to do better when it comes to voter turnout. The alternative is to stay home and ensure that our needs continue to go unanswered and our voices remain unheard.