If you're expecting a political/partisan lament, you've come to the wrong place. What bothered me the most about last month's election had little to do with the Republican victories across the board.
Rather, the historically low turnout both embarrassed and infuriated me. Preliminary numbers indicate that a mere 36.1% of eligible Americans voted. To put that number into historical context, an analysis by Phillip Bump of the Washington Post indicates that not only did we see the lowest turnout of any federal election since World War II, but we also might have seen one of the four lowest turnout elections since the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800!
I'm the first to acknowledge that Americans have every right to be jaded and frustrated by the current state of things politically. It's reasonable to think that moneyed interests control our government and that politicians from both parties have little interest in addressing the problems plaguing the lives of average Americans.
It's fair to be disgusted with both sides—to view the Republicans as the party of no, the Democrats as ineffectual and unwilling to admit mistakes, etc. Additionally, even if I didn't feel this way, others would be welcome to disagree with me.
But I really don't care how angry and disillusioned a person is. He/she should not, in my view, have the right to ignore what I believe to be our most fundamental duty as citizens. Indeed, I am a believer that being American grants us a plethora of rights, privileges, and protections, but also brings with it responsibilities. Most important among these responsibilities is voting.
I wasn't going to blog on this topic, because I prefer for my blog to be an educational/ideas forum, not a pulpit (as such I do offer an explanation of why voting is so important in the second half of this post). But as I watched the Concert For Valor on Veterans Day, and thought about how many men and women have sacrificed life and limb to protect our country, I got angry all over again and knew that the topic would have to go into the blog queue.
Every American has a moral obligation to vote, and to be sufficiently informed about the candidates and parties to vote intelligently. Especially in the internet age, getting information about candidates and elections is fairly easy and requires very minimal time.
Additionally, although we have seen troubling attempts to make it more difficult to vote in many states, it is still far easier to vote in most places than it was at any other period in American history. Thirty-three states have some form of early voting, eight states have same day voter registration, twenty states offer online voter registration, and two states (Oregon and Colorado) now have all mail elections.
In Colorado, every registered voter received a ballot in the mail. He or she needed only to a) mail the ballot back, or b) drop it in a box on election day. No waiting in line. No figuring out where to vote, etc. In short, voting required virtually no time or effort outside of figuring out which candidates to support. And yet, a mere 53.4% of eligible voters bothered to go to the trouble, in spite of hotly contested senatorial and gubernatorial elections.
Such results, frankly, are disgraceful.
Now, you might say, but Brian, what about people who refuse to vote as a protest? They hate both parties and see little reason to support either one. To me, the answer is simple, those voters can vote for a minor party candidate, they can select none of the above (which is an option in some states), they can vote only for select offices, or they can write in anyone from Santa Claus to Aaron Rodgers to their favorite pet. Indeed, one voter at my precinct (I serve as a judge of elections) who did not like his choices for congressman wrote in "Someone Honest."
What I reject are people simply staying at home. I also reject the nonsense excuse that there is little difference between the parties. It's reasonable to conclude that neither party represents one's interests, and to dislike both party platforms. But to say that the two parties have no differences is simply, factually incorrect.
On countless issues, ranging from immigration to abortion rights to gay marriage to taxation to climate change, the parties have almost diametrically opposite policy positions. We wouldn't have anywhere near the gridlock that we have had over the last four years if the parties were the same. I'd go so far as to say that, philosophically, the two parties have very little in common.
Anyone who tells you that he/she didn't vote because the two parties are the same is either a) a liar, b) incredibly ill informed, or c) delusional.
I'd favor making voting compulsory, if only because it might motivate more Americans to vote (even if there would be little way to penalize people for not voting).
Since I became eligible to vote in 2001, I have voted in virtually every election, primary and general, held in the state in which I lived. There have been a couple of primary and/or local elections where I didn't vote, either because there were no contested offices (often times in local elections candidates can crossfile and end up on both the Republican and Democratic tickets), or, in the case of primaries, where I saw few substantive differences between candidates (which is far more possible in a primary election).
I voted even when I wished that the parties had offered better choices and that the candidates had better addressed the issues about which I cared. I voted because voting matters, even if one vote by itself would almost never change election results.
Not voting does real harm to society. For example, Republicans may interpret last month's electoral results as a mandate to attempt to enact their policy agenda. Indeed, just today, Rep Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), lamented that not trying to undo President Obama's immigration executive order in the omnibus appropriations bill that Congress will consider this week represented sent the wrong message to the people who just reelected Republicans.
Yet, in reality, barely more than 1/3 of Americans even voiced an opinion on the Republican agenda, let alone supported it. It's possible that the vast majority of Americans opposed the Republican agenda but simply did not care enough to vote. This empowers extremists in Congress.
We have also seen government become almost paralyzed over the last few years because so many Americans only see fit to vote once every four years. The result is that a dramatically different, smaller electorate, with vastly different priorities, votes in midterm elections.
This leads to a government with multiple personality disorder that lurches back and forth, and produces gridlock, which in turn, frustrates and disillusions even more voters who wonder why nothing that the candidates ran on actually made it into the law.
The answer to their question is that, in many cases, the electorate two years earlier voted for candidates with the opposite views, and thanks to our system of checks and balances (as well as the right of state legislatures to draw district boundaries once per decade), enough of those office holders remain in office to prevent the people just elected from enacting their agenda.
In the past, when both parties contained liberals, moderates, and conservatives, this pattern might not have been problematic. Most major legislation had bipartisan support, and the gulf between the two parties was nowhere near as wide. Either ideology or party loyalty provided an incentive for the vast majority of Congress to work to try to find common ground (all but the ideologically driven segment of the minority party).
But today, with the parties holding fairly coherent views that diverge so significantly from one another on most major issues, this back and forth produces gridlock. It provides the loser of each election with incentive to stall and obstruct—to run out the clock until the more favorable electorate two years hence alters the balance of power.
This pattern, which, with the exception of 2008, we have seen in every election dating back to 2004, has the potential to increase gridlock over the next 6 years because there exists a real possibility that Senate control could flip back and forth between the two parties in 2016, 2018, and 2020.
Thus, the failure of millions of Americans to vote last month had not only immediate policy consequences, but also threatens to create a political process that further alienates many Americans, and leads to lower participation rates in the future.
This mutually reinforcing cycle seems destined to continue unless and until Americans view it as their civic duty to vote once every two years. They really have no excuse for not doing so.