I’m constantly reading how “we need to take our country back.” Interestingly, this sentiment is shared by people on both (or all) sides of the political spectrum. It makes it difficult to understand from just whom we want our country back from.
In our representative democracy, the only voice that has any real say at the end of the day is the people that show up at the polls for elections. Want your country back? Get out and vote! Sadly, the vast majority of Americans say one thing but do another.
While more than half of the eligible voters (barely) show up for general elections – those every four years when a president is being chosen, the number drops precipitously in off-year or mid-term elections. The national average in the last mid-term election, 2010, was 41% — but that doesn’t tell the real story.
Only eight states had half or more of eligible voters cast ballots in 2010. Minnesota had the highest voter turnout in the nation that year with a whopping 55.4% getting out the vote. This compares to 17 states where voter turnout was less than 40%. Texas, with its 32.1% turnout, “led” the way as the worst of all states for civic-mindedness.
But national elections, while terrible in terms of voter participation, only present half the bad picture. Our election processes are largely driven by two distinct non-governmental bodies – the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee. Both of these organizations are simply incorporated clubs that provide candidates for our elections. Both political parties in our predominantly 2 party system, hold sanctioned elections internally to see who will represent the club in the final election.
Voter turnout in these primary elections is shockingly low. In 2010, for the 42 states that hold primary elections, nation-wide voter turnout was pegged at 17.8% (up from 16.1% in 2006). The other eight states choose their candidates through a caucus process that is even far less representative. In the state with the lowest voter turnout in the 2010 election – Texas – the percentage of registered Republican voters that cast a ballot in the gubernatorial primary election that same year was [drum roll] – all of 11.4%! Of the state’s 13 million registered voters, approximately 1.5 million decided who the Republican candidate would be for the rest of the voting populace to choose from in November.
Politicians, and their corporate sponsors and lobbyists, are excruciatingly aware of this dynamic. The net effect, in our “democracy,” is that as a democrat or republican in Texas, 2010 – the candidate only needed to win a plurality of the vote cast. In a statewide race, 6% of the eligible voters casting ballots, was more than enough to put a candidate over the top to represent their party in the general election.
Fast forward to November, the winner of the election only requires 16.1% of the eligible voting public to win a senate seat or a governorship. If that candidate pulls 20%, it’s a landslide!
While hardly democratic, or even representative, it’s far easier to persuade 1 out of every 8 voters vice 5 of 10 to give you a vote. Keeping voter turnout low is in the best interest of the politician running.
The inherent problem this presents is when it comes to sweeping legislative agendas, either statewide or nationwide. When 84% of the citizens that didn’t endorse a politician are impacted by his or her legislative vote we don’t just have a problem, we don’t have a true Republic.
As people in this country sour on politics, the ability to capitalize on voter apathy will continue unabated. Fifty percent of the Millennial generation consider themselves “independent” voters, not affiliated with a political party label. However, in our current congress, only Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are the only two independents out of 535 representatives currently “serving.” Shunning a party label simply allows increased “voter repression” especially in states that hold closed primaries where only party affiliates have the privilege of casting a vote.
As the power to pick candidates at the primary level continues to shrink in the hands of a powerful minority – where instead of wooing 1 of 8 potential voters, politicians can instead focus on the 1 in 10, the ability to “change” things in this country will continue to erode.
Presidential elections will continue to have the cachet and ability to draw more than 50% of the voting public – but the off year elections have as much, if not more impact on the legislative agendas and direction that moves this country. These off year elections often involve choosing governors, congressional representatives, senators, as well as state legislators. Winners of these elections often boast of the mandates to enact policies campaigned on as reflective of the will of the people – but who’s will is it? When select, discreet minorities choose candidates for another minority to choose from, we hardly have a representative democracy.