FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Why More and More Americans Don’t Vote

by ROBERT BRYCE

For weeks, Democrats have been lambasting Mitt Romney over his bone-headed remark about the “47 percent of people” who want something from government and therefore won’t be voting for him. Forget Romney and his blather about the 47 percent. The number that should concern Americans on Election Day is this one: 45 percent.

Over the past eight federal elections, according to the Census Bureau, from 1996 to 2010, an average of 45 percent of voting-age citizens didn’t bother to vote. In the 2008 presidential election, the historic vote that sent Barack Obama to the White House, 43 percent of eligible voters stayed home.

Think about that. The US has about 234 million people who are able to vote and of that number, over 100 million of them will have something better to do today than choose between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. (Me, I voted for the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson.)

So why are so many people staying home? Entire books could be written on this subject. But I’ll focus on just three possible reasons.

First among them: Fewer people believe in the system. Over the past few decades, politics has devolved into just another aspect of American entertainment, akin to the World Series or Madonna’s latest theatrics. One example of that reality: The rise and collapse of George magazine. Launched in 1995 by John F. Kennedy Jr., the magazine covered politics as celebrity. Its tagline was “not just politics as usual.” It was People magazine for politicos. And of course, with the young, rich, handsome Kennedy at the helm, the glossy publication got huge amounts of attention because, well, the Kennedy name was attached to it. The magazine lasted six years (full disclosure: I wrote an article for the magazine), closing its doors in 2001, about 18 months after Kennedy was killed while piloting a small plane off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. (The crash also killed his wife and sister in law.)

Politicians have always been skewered for their foibles. (See: Will Rogers.) But the partisan gridlock in Congress, combined with the growing tribalism in politics has made politics more divisive as well as more open to – and deserving of — mockery. The sharpest political commentary on television today isn’t being seen on Fox, CBS, ABC, or NBC. Instead, it’s on Comedy Central. And it’s being delivered by Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

Those comedians are able to attack the “truthiness” of the political class and do so with a sneer. And while that sneer is well deserved, it also provides a justification for voters to stay home. After all, what’s the use in voting?

A second reason for voter apathy: There’s no down side to not voting and the Electoral College disenfranchises tens of millions. In the mid-1990s, Bill Harbaugh, an economics professor at the University of Oregon published some fascinating research on voting which found that among the people who don’t vote, about a quarter of them will lie to survey takers and claim that they did. When I talked to Harbaugh recently about his work, he told me that he looks at the issue as a “benefit-cost tradeoff. The benefits of voting are really low. The chances your vote will matter are close to zero.”

He went on saying that “The fact that people lie about it suggests there’s an emotional component” to voting. “People know they are expected to participate. And a lot of the decision to get involved says a lot about what kind of person you are.”

Harbaugh also mentioned the Electoral College as a reason for not voting. “People in Ohio” matter in this election, he said. “They are damn sure going to vote because that state is pivotal.” That’s not the case for states like Texas or California, which are already considered to be decided (Texas for Romney and California for Obama). Texas, by the way, had the lowest voter turnout of all 50 states in the 2010 mid-term elections when just 31.4 percent of eligible voters in Texas bothered to vote.

Harbaugh mentioned one other reason for so many non-voters: the process is hard. Of course, many people will dispute that claim. Early voting has greatly expanded the opportunity for voters to cast their ballots. But Harbaugh points to Oregon’s vote-by-mail process (in place since 1998) as superior to the one that requires voters to visit polling stations. Voting by mail means that, “it’s pretty cheap to vote. You don’t have to go to the polls.”

Harbaugh said that voter participation rates are higher in states where costs of voting are lower. In November 2010, more than 56 percent of Oregonians voted. Last year, Washington state switched to an entirely vote-by-mail system.

To be sure, there are many other reasons that could explain why voters are staying home. Neither of the major-party candidates is compelling. The presidential debates were a platform for glib sound bites. They were not a platform for discussion of the harsh realities facing America. The debates largely ignored America’s growing underclass, structural unemployment, the national debt, and our bloated military budget. Meanwhile, Congress has never had lower approval ratings. The only industry to rank below the federal government in a recent Gallup poll was the oil and gas sector.

But amid the easy cynicism, consider this: Australians are required to vote. Every citizen over the age of 18 is required to vote. If they don’t, they face a $20 fine. If the case ends up in court, and the non-voter is found guilty, the fine is $50 plus court costs.

America’s misadventures in Iraq will haunt this country for years to come. But when Iraqis went to the polls and voted for a new government in 2005, Americans had reason to feel some pride. Jubilant Iraqis – many of whom had never voted before — held high their purple fingers, which they had dipped in ink after voting for the candidates of their choice.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine such jubilation here in the US. Voting has become a bother. For 100 million Americans, the costs of voting are too high and the returns are too low. America has become a nation of non-participants, of watchers stupefied into cynicism and non-action. And that sad reality provides plenty of reason to worry about this country’s future.

Robert Bryce is the author of Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.

Weekend Edition
April 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Richard Falk
If Obama Visits Hiroshima
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Eva Golinger
My Country, My Love: a Conversation with Gerardo and Adriana of the Cuban Five
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Vijay Prashad
Political Violence in Honduras
Paul Krane
Where Gun Control Ought to Start: Disarming the Police
David Anderson
Al Jazeera America: Goodbye to All That Jazz
Rob Hager
Platform Perversity: More From the Campaign That Can’t Strategize
Pat Williams
FDR in Montana
Dave Marsh
Every Day I Read the Book (the Best Music Books of the Last Year)
David Rosen
Job Satisfaction Under Perpetual Stagnation
John Feffer
Big Oil isn’t Going Down Without a Fight
Murray Dobbin
The Canadian / Saudi Arms Deal: More Than Meets the Eye?
Gary Engler
The Devil Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Is Washington Preparing for War Against Russia?
Manuel E. Yepe
The Big Lies and the Small Lies
Robert Fantina
Vice Presidents, Candidates and History
Mel Gurtov
Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea
Howard Lisnoff
Still the Litmus Test of Worth
Dean Baker
Big Business and the Overtime Rule: Irrational Complaints
Ulrich Heyden
Crimea as a Paradise for High-Class Tourism?
Ramzy Baroud
Did the Arabs Betray Palestine? – A Schism between the Ruling Classes and the Wider Society
Halyna Mokrushyna
The War on Ukrainian Scientists
Joseph Natoli
Who’s the Better Neoliberal?
Ron Jacobs
The Battle at Big Brown: Joe Allen’s The Package King
Wahid Azal
Class Struggle and Westoxication in Pahlavi Iran: a Review of the Iranian Series ‘Shahrzad’
David Crisp
After All These Years, Newspapers Still Needed
Graham Peebles
Hungry and Frightened: Famine in Ethiopia 2016
Robert Koehler
Opening the Closed Political Culture
Missy Comley Beattie
Waves of Nostalgia
Thomas Knapp
The Problem with Donald Trump’s Version of “America First”
Georgina Downs
Hillsborough and Beyond: Establishment Cover Ups, Lies & Corruption
Jeffrey St. Clair
Groove on the Tracks: the Magic Left Hand of Red Garland
Ben Debney
Kush Zombies: QELD’s Hat Tip to Old School Hip Hop
Charles R. Larson
Moby Dick on Steroids?
David Yearsley
Miles Davis: Ace of Baseness
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail