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Why More and More Americans Don’t Vote

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.

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