(Please Vote: Democracy Depends On It!!)
George Carlin is famous for a lot of things, among them, a quip about how voting is “meaningless,” and how those who do vote are the ones who are to blame for the country’s “mess.” Now, I love me some classic George Carlin comedy, but he was dead wrong on his little diatribe about not voting. Choosing to not vote means willingly giving up a hard-fought constitutional right and abandoning a duty and responsibility of a productive member of a Democratic society. Specifically, choosing to not vote does several things: Erodes Democracy, weakens our policies and social contract and increases inequality, and diminishes the lives lost of those who have fought for Democracy. So why are so many people choosing to not vote when voting is one of the most important things a person can do and is so integral to our country’s very survival?
The United States has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the developed world. Since 1996, the average voter turnout in primary elections is between 15 and 30 percent, while the average turnout in midterm elections is about 39 percent. Even at our best, only slightly more than half of eligible Americans bother to vote in presidential elections. In fact, in 2016, neither major party candidate received the majority of votes cast, and if “Did Not Vote” was a candidate, it would have won by a landslide.
To be sure, there is a growing proportion of nonvoters who want to vote and try to vote, but whose votes are suppressed in various ways. This voter suppression, mostly of Black and Hispanic people, could be up to 15 percent of the electorate, and is another way in which Democracy is being destroyed.
Think of it this way: You’re with 9 friends at a restaurant table discussing what you want to eat. Four of you decide that the table is going to have the family-style option of liver pate with day-old rice, a dish that has been known to make people sick in the past. One of you votes for a specialty that the restaurant is known for. Four of you say, “I don’t care. I’m going to choose to not have a voice or say in this and will have to eat whatever the group chooses.” Another one of you doesn’t get to vote because the group decides when she goes to the restroom. The entire table ends up with a disgusting meal that makes everyone sick. (Of course, the four who voted for the family-style option won’t acknowledge that they’re sick at all. Not unlike the scene in Bridesmaids.) That is exactly what happens in the US for almost every election when 40 percent or fewer bother to vote: The entire community or country is stuck with a bad dish that has been known to make people sick.
Who are these 15 to 40 percent who bother to vote in every election? They are mostly older, mostly White, mostly educated and wealthy, and mostly conservative and old-fashioned in their ideals and politics. And they vote for people who are exactly like them. From a practical standpoint, this means is that a very small, self-selected group of people representing between 8 and 25 percent of the population is selecting people who are supposed to represent all of us. Those who chose to not vote should ask themselves whether they are OK with these people representing them in all levels and branches of government.
The only way Democracy works is if everyone participates. Many political scientists have noted that the United States has become an oligarchy run by the wealthy elite, the one percent. One report found that large corporations dominate political power, and that of the organizations that spend the most on lobbying, 95 percent are businesses. This oligarchy is a direct result of people choosing to not vote. As professor and author Nicholas Carnes noted, “Government for the people requires government by the people.” This idea is as old as the country itself: Thomas Jefferson said, “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories.”
As fewer people vote, Democracy declines. Those in power represent not the interests of the country or constituents, but the interests of the wealthy special interests who participated in the election. In this vicious cycle, the United States was recently reclassified as a “flawed democracy” by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual review of countries, and its ranking fell to 21st in the world.
More importantly, those who don’t vote lose their opportunity to have their views represented. They lose their voice. In return, policymakers disregard their views when making decisions and voting precisely because they know that they can get away with it because the majority of their constituents don’t vote. Thus, those who chose to not vote also lose their right to complain about election outcomes and policy impacts. This is especially true for young people, who have the most at stake in all elections.
Choosing to not vote also severely impacts the policies of our communities and our country, which can impact generations. As one example, one report showed that even though most Americans tend to support increasing government services and spending, guaranteeing jobs, reducing inequality, and generally having a strong social contract, those who actually vote oppose these things by a margin of about 17 points. If everyone voted, our policies would closer reflect the will, perspective, circumstances, and needs of the average American much better than they currently do with only a fraction of people voting.
This year, the consequences of not voting are even more dire as we approach redistricting, which happens every ten years and which influences gerrymandering in our country. Gerrymandering is yet another way in which Democracy slowly dies.
Choosing to not vote also dishonors those who we claim to honor every year on Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day. We can’t claim to honor those who fought and died for Democracy — for our and others’ right to vote — and then willfully throw that right away.
And many who fought and died for the right to vote weren’t in the military. Thousands of people died so that black people had the right to vote. People still alive today remember those people. Journalist Jocelyn Y. Stewart recently recounted her parents’ experiences trying to vote:
I came to learn how perilous it had been for black people to vote in the South, especially in the era prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. People of color didn’t return from the poll wearing a splashy red, white and blue “I voted” sticker the way we might now. People of color often weren’t allowed to vote, and if they persisted, and tried organizing others to exercise their rights as Americans, they were often beaten, sometimes killed, for their efforts.
Earlier, thousands of women were beaten, maimed, and killed so that women would have the right to vote. How does any woman choose to now not vote?
If 2016 taught us anything, it taught us the importance of voter turnout. The Pew Research Center recently confirmed what many of us already knew: Those who chose to not vote in 2016 were primarily responsible for Trump winning the presidential election. Or, as The Washington Post pointed out, The data made clear that “those who didn’t vote are as responsible for the outcome of the election as those who did.” (Other data show how third-party voters were also responsible, but that’s another story for another time.)
And nonvoters don’t only impact presidential elections. While many presidential and Congressional elections are decided by very close margins, at the local level, many more elections are decided by only a handful of votes, and sometimes by even one vote. Any student knows the difference between an 89 and a 90 in a grade, but so many don’t seem to understand how much that one extra point is worth in elections.
It’s clear that every vote matters.
It’s clear that every vote matters. Your vote for President determines whether and how well our economy works for the average person and how the United States is viewed around the world, among hundreds of other things. It determines who sits on federal court benches across the country, which determine so many aspects of your daily life, such as whether students who were scammed by a for-profit school can get loan forgiveness. Your vote for Congress determines what kind of federal policy does or does not get passed, such as paid family leave, which has been blocked for decades. Your vote for governor determines who sits on state court benches, which bills are signed into law, and whether Medicare is expanded to cover all of the people of the state, as just some examples. Your vote for state legislature determines whether your state values education, employment, social justice, technology, and science and the environment, or whether it wants to keep its citizens in the dark ages. Importantly now, your vote for governor and state legislature determines whether women in your state will have access to safe, legal abortion when the current Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. Your vote for school board determines what kind of education and protections your children receive. (Not to mention that today’s school board members are tomorrow’s Congress members.) As one example, the state board of education in Texas recently voted to remove Helen Keller, Hillary Clinton, Barry Goldwater, and many others from the school curricula, while keeping Baptist pastor Billy Graham. Seven seats on the Texas board of education are up for election this November (others are appointed by the governor), and the next board will determine the state’s sex education standards. In the 2014 primary, 33 percent of registered voters in Texas actually voted.
There are many excuses people use to not vote: I’m too busy. One vote isn’t going to make a difference. I didn’t have time. I’m not political. All of these are exactly that: Excuses.
In most states, we can certainly do a better job at facilitating access to the polls. But generally, polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and there are opportunities to vote absentee if you truly will be too busy or unavailable on Election Day. We’ve already shown how every vote does, in fact, matter. Those who claim to “not be political” perhaps don’t understand that everything is political, from the roads we drive to the air we breathe to the water we drink and the food we eat to the medications we take and the healthcare we do or don’t receive to the movies we watch to the textbooks our kids learn from to how safe we are in our communities. People claiming to not be political are surrounded by politics and, more importantly, people who ARE political. There’s a saying that if you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu. Those who don’t vote and whose voices aren’t heard are notably on the menu every day, even if they’re unaware. And one way to ensure access to voting is to vote for people who want to improve access rather than suppress voting!
One of the most common excuses given for not voting, according to a Pew poll, was a dislike of candidates. Yet these are likely the same people who didn’t turn out in the primary election to determine who that candidates would be either. There is rarely a situation when one candidate’s positions aren’t better or worse than the other candidates, regardless of how flawed all candidates may be. Those who chose to not vote are in fact voting for the worst candidate: The one who would otherwise not have a chance but for the low voter turnout. Donald Trump is the perfect example of that. As one viral tweet pointed out, “The mayor from Jaws is still the mayor in Jaws 2. It is so important to vote. . . .”
George Carlin claimed that it is actually those who don’t vote who have the most right to complain. He may have been funny in many ways. But when it comes to his routine on voting, he was unfunny and dangerous. I wonder what his reaction would have been to so many people rationalizing their poor choices with his comedy routine, especially in 2016.
To find out where you can register to vote or check your voter registration status, visit www.vote.org.
Dr. Amy Bacharach is a policy researcher, an elected delegate to the California Democratic Party, a former Trustee of the San Francisco Community College Board, and a mom to two tiny humans. She is also the founder of Parenting In Politics.