Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Why We Have Voter Apathy

It was an old friend of mine who used to joke that he didn’t care either way about apathy.  But when apathy is being used to describe US voters, it is no joke.   

To be sure, low voter turnouts are also caused by politically imposed restrictions that make it difficult or very inconvenient for many to vote.  And Voter ID laws pushed by Republicans in a number of states are despite their denials, designed to make it especially difficult for groups of citizens who tend to vote Democratic. 

But why do so many in the US often choose not to vote?   Voter apathy in America is nothing new.  Libertarian author Robert Ringer in his 1979 book Restoring the American Dream offers this cynical observation in a section subtitled Can 70 Million Americans Be Wrong? 

Citizens are continually urged to vote.  Media and celebrity pawns flood us with admonishing slogans like, “If you don’t vote, don’t gripe.”  Even acquaintances make perplexing statements to the effect that “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, just so you vote.” (Why doesn’t it matter???)
And yet, not withstanding this constant barrage of reasonless rhetoric, nonvoters continue to increase their standing as the true majority in every election.
If half the people in this country are not voting, it is fairly obvious they are telling the government something.  But the government, instead of being responsive to the people whom it supposedly represents, retaliates with an endless barrage of slogans, the essence of which are, “It’s your duty to vote.” 

Ringer looks at voting as “a process of legitimization” of what many view as a corrupt political system that they may not wish to validate.  He then goes on to write:
The truth is that if politicians were honest, they would encourage a person to vote only if he sincerely believed in one of the candidates.
First of all, it needs to be pointed out that the “half of the people...not voting” that Ringer refers to are for presidential elections.  For off-year elections, especially in the primaries, turnout can be often less than 20% so if anything, he is greatly understating the lack of voter turnout.  

Although my political persuasion has evolved over the years from libertarian to liberal, I think Ringer has put his finger on the question as perceived by too many Americans:  Is there anybody out there who is really worth voting for? 

In my view, voter apathy is not the cause of our problems, but is instead a symptom of serious problems we have in our political system. 

If there is a number one problem, it is the large (and ever growing) influence of big money in our political system.  I’m sure there are dozens of people across the country who would make compelling candidates we would want to go out and vote for but we will never hear of them because they don’t have the personal wealth and/or financial backing needed to run an effective campaign.  In essence, most of our politicians at least on the state and national level are either wealthy enough to self-finance a campaign or must become beholden more to their large campaign contributors than the voters.  It’s hard for voters to get excited over candidates who are effectively chosen to run by others in power.  Going to all publicly financed elections would be a giant step in the right direction – but don’t expect the wealthy and corporate influencers who exert so much power under the present system to willingly give up that power. 

As a political junkie, you would expect that I would make it a priority to vote in every single election.  But I must confess that you would be wrong. 

In the recent primary election in Pennsylvania, we voted for candidates to run for governor in November’s general election.  As a Democrat, I had the choice between 4 candidates who had essentially identical positions.  How can the average voter be able to intelligently choose between them?  But because one of the candidates, Tom Wolf spent a huge amount of his own money for saturation TV ads, it was announced by the news media that Wolf had an overwhelming lead in the polls leading to the election – a prediction that came true with his crushing victory over his rivals.  Now Mr. Wolf may indeed be an OK candidate.  But it is disheartening that he won and the others got crushed mostly because he had the large amount of money at his disposal that the others didn’t.  And as for the Republican ballot, the incumbent governor ran unopposed.  Given all of this, was it a surprise to see far more poll workers in the building than voters?

The other principal candidates on the ballot especially during off-year elections are for the election of judges.  But unless you are a trial lawyer who has worked in an incumbent judge’s courtroom, you have likely never seen the judge at work.  And in addition, it is generally viewed as incorrect for a judge to espouse political positions which is why you often hear little more than that they are in favor of “law and order”.  And on top of that, many judicial candidates in primary elections are even allowed to cross-file and appear on both party ballots thereby hiding the party they are affiliated with.  So campaign strategy mainly consists of an attempt at saturation advertising by way of TV ads along with endless road and yard signs to try and burn a candidate’s name into voters’ minds so that they recognize and pick that name out among the mostly unfamiliar names on the ballot. One of the most memorable campaigns for me from many years ago was for a judicial candidate named Silvestri Silvestri.  His ads consisted of little more than the simple catch line: Silvestri Silvestri – A name worth repeating!  And it was good enough to win elections; check out this interesting story about him. But again, it is any surprise that so many voters don’t bother to show up for elections like this?

In fairness, local Bar Associations do make recommendations on judicial candidates for those voters who want to take the time to look them up.  And it used to be that local papers used to cover judicial candidates (along with the elected row offices that perform basic governmental functions) to provide helpful insight on them.  But with many newspapers in financial distress and cutting back on manpower, features like this have almost disappeared.  A compelling case can be made that judges shouldn’t even be on the ballot and should instead be chosen by merit selection committees.  For more on this, the reader is invited to check out one of my previous postings A Better Way to Pick Judges.

But by far the biggest offenders in turning off the electorate are the anti-government zealots, notably those in the Tea Party.  These are the people who say they hate government but want to run for office so they can become a part of it, obstructing anything it does sometimes even to the point of shutting it down. This causes our government to become dysfunctional not only due to the resulting partisan gridlock but also because necessary government functions are starved for money and resources (like the Veterans Administration, for example). So now these same people can then reinforce their message that government is no good at anything!

But when government is seen as no good at anything, more and more disillusioned citizens (especially those in the moderate part of the political spectrum) will just throw up their hands and say what’s the use in voting?  The result is often low turnout elections that disproportionately favor – you guessed it – those same anti-government zealots!  How convenient!

So there is no misunderstanding – I am not downplaying the vital importance of free elections in a democracy.  But just having the right to vote isn’t enough on its own; there must also be what are perceived as real choices available to have a truly engaged electorate.  After all, dictatorships give their citizens the right to vote but no real choices.  Just imagine what the voter turnout would be in those countries if voting wasn’t mandatory!

There are recent examples of citizens getting really excited about an election.  We can all vividly recall President Obama’s first presidential campaign based on what he called Hope and Change that culminated in an emotional victory celebration where many of the participants were overcome with tears.  More recently, a populist newcomer to politics, Elizabeth Warren with rabid support from many even outside of Massachusetts was propelled to an improbable US Senate victory there.

Speaking of Elizabeth Warren, I am convinced that if she were to spread her populist message on the national presidential stage that she is and will be working for the interests of the middle class and poor instead of for the rich and powerful – she would gather a great deal of support from the electorate as a needed breath of fresh air.  But the Democratic Party machinery and financial support are already overwhelmingly lined up behind Hillary Clinton.  Which means that if Hillary decides to run, Elizabeth Warren will not be a choice and anybody else who may run against Hillary will have little chance for the nomination. 

So just like so many elections before it, our choices on whom we can vote for in 2016 will be largely determined by whichever candidate gets the most financial support from big donors who will then expect the winner to work for them and not the voters.  Is it any wonder that so many prospective voters have just given up?

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