I believe that most Americans truly value our democratic system, and yet, we consistently fail to strengthen and uphold that system by supporting democracy’s central tenet – universal, confidential voting. Among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), average voter turnout is above 70%, with countries like Austria and Italy regularly showing (voluntary) turnout above 80%. By contrast, only about 60% of the eligible American population votes in presidential election years, with that share falling to around 40% in midterm elections.
There are a number of reasons for this low voter participation rate. First, there is a widespread sense that individual votes don’t matter, especially in non-swing states. That may be true for some national elections, but there are always local candidates and issues on the ballot where a few dozen votes make the difference between winning and losing. Second, some complain that voting is a hassle. Yes, Americans must register to vote and may need to report to a specific polling location, but registration is generally very straightforward and polling places are always near one’s registered address. Plus, early voting and absentee voting are always options. [As you can see, I am not very sympathetic to this complaint. I voted early and my husband, who is not a citizen so is ineligible to vote, will be volunteering as an election facilitator for 12 hours on Election Day.] Finally, many Americans feel that policies won’t change regardless of which politicians get elected, so see no reason to vote. That attitude allows zealots with more extreme political positions to wield disproportionate influence.
Women have a particularly important role to play at election time. In 2012, 53% of votes were cast by women, and yet, some candidates persist in their insistence that access to contraception, equal pay, and education are not issues that voters care about. Parents should also make a point of learning about local candidates and ballot measures, since these choices will impact their children’s schools, parks, libraries, overall safety, etc. I know we are all very busy, with limitless demands on our time and attention, but I encourage everyone to spend a few minutes to research the options presented to you this week (for early voting) and next (on Election Day, November 4), and take the time to make your voice heard. Our democracy depends on it.
This public service announcement has been brought to you by a lifetime of public education, bruised-but-not-beaten idealism, and the letter, “D.”