Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.
–Franklin D. Roosevelt
Our American heritage is threatened as much by our own indifference as it is by the most unscrupulous office or by the most powerful foreign threat. The future of this republic is in the hands of the American voter.
–Dwight D. Eisenhower
By Paul Rozycki
Guess who was the winner in the last election?
The Republicans? Nope!
The Democrats? Nope!
The Libertarians, the Green Party or the Socialists? Nope! Nope! Nope!
The real “winner” in the last election, and in nearly every election in American history, hasn’t been Democrats, Republicans, or any other party. The real “winner” has been those who don’t vote.
For example, in 2016 about 65.8 million voted for Hillary Clinton, about 62.9 million voted for Donald Trump, and at least 92 million didn’t vote at all. The non-voters had a nearly 30 million margin over either Hillary or Trump. And that pattern isn’t unusual. In most presidential elections only about 60 percent of those eligible to vote actually vote. In 2016 it was less than that—about 58 percent. Of those who vote, about half vote for the Democrat, and half for the Republican in any given year.
But those votes for either party are outnumbered by the 40 percent who didn’t vote at all. That’s been true for most of American history. Even more striking is the fact that those numbers are for our most important election—the presidential contest every four years. While we turn out about 60 percent of potential voters for the presidential election, only about 40 percent vote in mid-term elections. In Michigan, our August primary usually gets about a 20 percent turnout. Though this year we did set a record with about 27 percent of the voters showing up in August. But even that record breaking turnout left 73 percent of the voters at home. In recent years, in Flint, under emergency managers, we’ve had several elections with less than a 10 percent turnout.
So what’s the problem? People have the choice to vote or not, don’t they? Yes, they do, but democracy depends on an active informed electorate, and democratic ideals can disappear as easily from apathy as from outside attack. And those who vote have a louder voice in deciding what happens and what doesn’t.
Who votes? Who doesn’t?
While on average about 60 percent of us vote for president, some groups vote a lot more than others, and that explains why some policies are put in place very quickly, and others don’t happen at all. Without running through a long list of numbers, charts, and percentages, people are more likely to vote if they are older, well educated, wealthy, and white.
For example, in the 2016 election, 71 percent of those over 65 voted, while only 46 percent of those under 30 did. Voters with less than a high school education only saw a 33 percent turnout, while those with some college education voted at a 68 percent rate, and 81 percent of those with postgraduate work voted. The voters with incomes over $150,000, more than 80 percent voted, while only 46 percent of those with income under $10,000 did. White voters turned out at a 65 percent rate, only 59 percent of African Americans voted (a decline from 2012), and 47 percent of Hispanics voted in 2016.
With numbers like that it’s not hard to see why so many policies favor some groups and ignore others. Politicians and their policies go where the votes are, and they know all too well where the votes are and where they aren’t. Elections matter and those who vote (and don’t vote) determine who wins, who loses, and who makes policy.
In the view of most analysts, the outcome of the 2016 election was determined more by those who didn’t vote than those who did. The evidence suggests that Hillary lost because so many of her traditional Democratic voters stayed home, rather than a dramatic new surge of voters for Trump.
Why don’t we vote more?
So why don’t we vote more? Most democratic nations have a much better voting record than we do. The United States ranks 26th out of 32 developed, democratic nations in our rate of voting. Belgium, Sweden, and Demark all turn out more than 80 percent of their voters in a typical election. Canada and Mexico have a higher voting rate than the U.S. as well. In 2016 we had about a 58 percent turnout.
How we run our elections
One reason is the way we run our elections. We usually hold them on a Tuesday, when many people are working. We require that voters take the responsibility to make sure they are registered ahead of time, they must remember to reregister if they move, and increasingly we require that voters show official IDs to vote. Absentee voting or early voting is often difficult. Unlike many nations, we disenfranchise felons, and make it difficult for them to regain the right to vote once their time is served. Many nations with higher voter rates hold elections on weekends, often over several days. Some make Election Day a holiday. Many nations automatically register all citizens or make registration much easier than it is in the U.S. Some nations even require voting or offer financial incentives to vote.
Our cynical attitude towards politics
Perhaps the biggest reason for not voting is our attitude towards politics. We live in a cynical time when trust in government, and many other institutions, is at an all-time low. That trust has declined for many decades, starting with the Vietnam War and Watergate in the 60’s. Ask a non-voter why they abstain and you’ll often hear, “I don’t trust any of them”, or “It won’t make any difference”, or “My vote won’t matter.” Our gerrymandered election districts encourage cynicism. When one party is so dominant it’s normal to feel that, either your party is certain to win, so why bother to vote? Or your party is certain to lose, so why vote? This decline in trust stems from many sources, but two stand out. How many candidates base their campaigns on running against Washington, bragging that they are outsiders and not part of the system? How many radio talk show commentators make their name by angrily ranting at whoever is in office?
Intentional restriction of the vote
Some elected officials in both parties have a vested interest in keeping turnout low.
For Republicans, they fear that in increase in turnout will mean an increase in Democratic voters, so they have generally supported policies that discouraged easier voting. They have usually opposed early voting, easier absentee voting, automatic registration, and student voting on campus. They have often favored strict voter ID laws, and opposed laws that allowed ex-felons to vote. In some states polling places have been closed in areas with minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic. While it is probably true that increasing the voter turnout would help Democrats, several studies suggest that non-voters political leanings are not all that different from those who show up at the polls.
Yet, Republicans aren’t the only ones to restrict the vote. Long term incumbents of either party might not be willing to expand the voter base, especially if that base has been electing them for a long time, and they don’t know who the new voters are likely to be. It’s also not uncommon for a school board or local millage committee to purposely schedule a vote for a time when few will turn out, in the hope that only their loyal supporters will show up, and pass the millage or bond issue.
What should we do about it?
We owe it to ourselves to become informed. Unfortunately, with the decline of traditional newspapers, political information is more fragmented and less reliable than in the past. There’s certainly more information on line, but how much is true? We need to be wise consumers of news. Our schools should do more to encourage and develop civic literacy. One good source today is the League of Women Voter’s website, Vote411.org, which offers an overview of all the candidates. A visit to the Genesee County Clerk’s website can give one the opportunity to see all the candidates and issues on the ballot before Election Day.
Issues on this year’s ballot
This year there will also be two issues on the ballot that can offer an opportunity to expand the vote. One proposal will attempt to limit partisan gerrymandering by creating an independent commission to draw election districts. East Village Magazine has covered this in past issues and will review it again before November. A second proposal that might be on the ballot, backed by the group Promote the Vote, would encourage voting through a list of measures including automatic registration, absentee voting for anyone, straight party ticket voting, and assuring that those in the military receive their ballots on time. There’s a lot more to both proposals and they could be a step in the right direction.
In the next eight weeks, take the time to inform yourself. Go to candidate forums. Look in the EVM and other sources for information on all the proposals and candidates that will be on the Nov. 6 ballot.
And don’t forget to vote. It’s what democracy is all about.
Editor’s note: This column is part of an effort East Village Magazine is launching in September and October to inform voters and help get out the vote for the November midterms and beyond.
EVM political commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.