“Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote that he is not making a present or a compliment to please an individual–or at least that he ought not so to do; but that he is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country. ” — Samuel Adams
In 1789 the United States became the first modern constitutional republic. In the years since then the citizens of the United States have enjoyed the right to elect their fellow citizens to office to represent them in the governance of the nation.
Initially only white men owning property could vote, then this right was extended to white men who didn’t own property. Later, non-white men were allowed to vote. In 1913 the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution took the selection of Senators away from State legislatures and allowed each State’s citizens to elect their Senators directly. Poll taxes were abolished, as they created an impediment to voters of lower socioeconomic status. Women were allowed to vote, as were Native Americans. Finally, the voting age was reduced to eighteen.
Despite this expansion of the electorate the United States has seen a consistent decline in voter turnout. Despite extending the most important and vital of rights in a republic or democracy, significant numbers of Americans have declined to exercise that right. Today the United States has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the free world, with an average of forty-eight percent (48%) of registered voters going to the polls. Presidential elections tend to have higher than average turnouts, and the 2008 Presidential election had the highest turnout since 1968, which bucked the general downward trend. In November we shall see if that turnout will be matched, or, hopefully, exceeded.
Some experts have attributed voter apathy to various factors, depending on which polls, studies, and articles you review. The two most commonly named culprits are ‘voter fatigue’ and a feeling that their votes don’t count. There is also a significant lack of interest in Congressional, State and municipal elections, with some years showing turnouts as low as forty percent (40%). In the 2010 US Census, only sixty-five percent (65%) of voting age citizens reported being registered to vote. This means that approximately 73.5 million Americans are not even registered to vote, let alone turning out at the polls.
Voter fatigue is believed to arise from the frequency of elections at the local and federal level. Every year the citizenry are hammered by a barrage of campaigns on various issues, and, in many cases, are faced with multiple elections in a given year. In the age of a ‘TL;DR’ (Too Long; Didn’t Read) mentality it can be surmised that many Americans are not educating themselves as to the details of each issue showing up on the ballots. This is compounded by the cacophony of often misleading campaign ads, many of which are focused on issues that are designed to polarize the voters. In this day and age most ads are not intended to inspire, to encourage voters to vote *for* something or someone, but rather to scare people into voting *against* something , citing dire consequences should they fail to do so. These sorts of tactics are not intended to educate voters on the facts surrounding issues and candidates, but rather provide only a façade, a mere whitewash on the issues. It should be noted, however, that such campaign tactics are intended to, and are sometimes successful, in ‘energizing the base’ and encouraging voter turnout.
We have observed a common thread among many Americans, spanning the political spectrum: The establishment ignores the middle, the establishment panders to monied interests and special interest groups. Some of this may have a basis in fact, some may be conjecture or speculation, but the sentiment is there and should not be dismissed out of hand. The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court and the concomitant rise of the Super PACs certainly play into the hands of those who believe that those with sufficient affluence can ensure greater access to politicians and greater influence over the electoral process than the average citizen. If people sincerely feel that their votes will not make a difference, then there is no motivation to cast their ballots.
It is my supposition that the campaigns have alienated many Americans, especially those with more independent or moderate leanings. The media pundits speak of these voters as ‘swing voters,’ vital to the election of their candidates, yet neither the Republican nor Democrat parties’ efforts on capturing this body have not proven successful in any meaningful or significant way. Interestingly, in the past few election cycles we have seen the creation of voting blocs such as the Tea Party, and the libertarian-leaning movement supporting Ron Paul. These groups have been very successful in making inroads into the traditional GOP establishment, disrupting the ‘politics as usual’ mentality. Many of these individuals are motivated by a sense of disenfranchisement, that their voices are not heard by the GOP as a whole. Similarly, the Democrats have seen the rise of groups such as the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose members have rebuked the notion that their votes can be relied upon by the left’s political establishment. Should these trends continue in the future, it may be that one or more viable political parties may arise to challenge the dominance of the traditional two-party paradigm.
Overall, those who have traditionally held the reins of power are now faced with a choice: to continue in their ossified methods or to embrace the broader views of their constituents. To choose the former would, if current trends prove to have staying power, alienate an appreciable percentage of their voting base, while choosing the latter may well serve to draw more support from independents and moderates. Continuing to play to their more extreme wings will serve only to keep voters at home if they don’t believe either party represents them in Washington DC.
Perhaps the most effective method of combating voter apathy is to engage our fellow citizens, to emphasize the tremendous need for them to actually exercise their right to vote. If we, ourselves, can each get even one or two more people active in the electoral process it could engender a significant change in the way things work. Explain to them, regardless of their political persuasion, that the only way for their concerns to be addressed, to make their voices heard, is to cast their vote. Of primary importance to me, even to the detriment of my own personal politics, is to get Americans engaged in the process. Our system of constitutional governance relies upon the involvement of the People, and upon the exercise of the sacrosanct and essential liberty of the right to choose those who govern.