By Lauren Lam
At the Gettysburg Address in 1863, Abraham Lincoln famously proclaimed that the United States should enjoy “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Flash forward a century and a half and one will find that this is not at all the reality of today’s political system. Only 58% of eligible voters cast their ballots in the 2012 American presidential election and a mere 36.3% voted in the 2014 midterm elections. So why is it that in a world where so many countries are still fighting for free elections and universal suffrage, countless citizens in the United States, and other well-established democracies, chose not to exercise their democratic right?
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance ranks the USA 120th for average national voter turnout. Although the United States performs poorly in international rankings of political participation, it is certainly not alone in declining voter turnout. Prior to the most recent federal election on October 19th, Canada’s voter turnout had been steadily declining, reaching an all-time low of 58.8% in 2008. In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), whose members are largely considered to be high-income developed countries with high Human Development Index (HDI) scores, 29 of its 34 members experienced a percentage decline in voter turnout from 1980 to 2011. Voter turnout declined an average of eleven percentage points during this period for the organisation as a whole.
Poor political participation is problematic for a multitude of reasons. First of all, there is arguably an ethical dimension; citizens should exercise their democratic right that their predecessors worked so hard to achieve. Secondly, when fewer people vote, it undermines the principles of democracy. When citizens are not politically engaged and fail to participate in elections, the government becomes more like an oligarchy than a democracy. Participation is vital to represent what the populace wants, and also works to shape government policy in a positive trajectory. Furthermore, low voter turnout affects political parties disproportionately; traditionally, conservative-leaning parties, including the Republican Party in the US, benefit because young, low-income, and minority potential voters are less likely to cast their ballots. Thus, for better and for worse, choosing not to vote is a vote in itself.
But why are people no longer motivated to go to the polls? There are several factors which contribute to voter turnout including degree of formal education, health, income level, political competition, age demographics, relevant campaign issues, publicity, convenience, and perception of being able to make a tangible difference. Some of these factors involve deeply embedded, systemic issues; for example, in Hawaii, a state with one of the lowest voter turnouts, there is a “vicious cycle of people who are disappointed in the government and politics, and they don’t vote”. While voter apathy and disenchantment with the electoral system are important issues that should be addressed, it is easier to improve democracy by increasing voter turnout in the more immediate future.
One of the easiest ways to increase turnout at the polls is to make voting more convenient. In 49 American states, there is a two-step process to vote: eligible citizens must first register to vote, then actually cast their ballots. In countries such as Germany and France however, voter lists are produced based on population databases and other governmental agencies. Voting thus becomes much simpler, which results in a higher turnout. The electoral system can also be made more convenient through enhanced advance polling and absentee balloting. In the 2015 Canadian federal election, 3.6 million voters cast their ballots in advance voting over four days, up 16% over the three days of advance voting in the 2011 election, though there are several other factors that may have come into play. Bernie Sanders has intriguingly proposed to make Election Day a national holiday entitled “Democracy Day” to encourage political participation. This would effectively give all citizens both the time and the opportunity to vote.
Mail-in ballots have also proved to be very effective in increasing voter turnout. In the 2014 US midterm elections, Oregon, which uses a mail ballot system, had the 5th highest turnout by state, while Colorado had the 4th highest turnout by state after switching to a mail ballot system that year. If more states follow suit, national voter turnout will likely increase. Electronic ballot systems could also make voting much more convenient. Young voters are especially likely to refrain from traditional voting, thus making electronic voting very appealing to the youth demographic. In India, national elections were successfully held via computer technology owned and operated by the government, giving hope to advocates in the USA.
Rather than make voting more convenient however, many Republican state legislatures and governors have passed laws which make it more difficult to vote. This legislation has made it more difficult to register to vote, has reduced the window for early voting, and has even made a picture ID mandatory to vote. Similar legislation was implemented in Canada by outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which many argue was intended to suppress indigenous voters. To have truly democratic elections, all such legislation should be reformed or repealed.
A more drastic measure to increase voter turnout would be to make voting compulsory. Such laws already exist in Australia and Belgium, countries which have the highest percentages of eligible voters who vote of 14 comparable, wealthy countries. In Australia, there are strict laws against refusing to vote which can lead to no-show fines; meanwhile, Belgium disenfranchises voters who continually fail to vote and as a result enjoys a turnout of approximately 93%. Conversely, the implementation of such laws in the United States would likely be met with a great deal of backlash. After all, is this not an undemocratic way of conducting democracy? Many Australians oppose their current electoral system, including Jason Kent, who notes that about 10% of individuals still fail to register, and a further 6% of votes are spoiled, perhaps as a form of protest.
In order to improve voter turnout, political officials in the United States and abroad are best off making minor changes to improve the convenience of voting. Nonetheless, it is equally important to realize that high voter turnout does not equate to high political engagement. While improving voter turnout will make democracy more democratic, policymakers must simultaneously strive to make citizens more politically aware. Campaigns need to move away from negative campaigning, which only serves to make voters apathetic and frustrated. In the meantime, our broken form of democracy prevails.
Image by MarylandGovPics
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