for some citizens, voting still matters a lot. Enough to wait in line., But to most of us, voting is something we just don’t do any more.
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As the 2016 Presidential election approaches, I can’t but wonder if it will engage more than a minority of American citizens. Heck, barely a majority even of registered voters will likely bother to cast a vote. About 50 percent did so even in 2012, when America’s first Black president sought re-election. Not much more tan that voted in 2008 despite enormous enthusiasm in communities of color.
What is going on ? Why are Americans not voting ?
We all know that in the mid-term election a month ago, about 27 percent of voters voted. The percentage was much less than that for all citizens — maybe as many as half of all American citizens aren’t on the voter lists. Why not ?
Not so long ago, American elections claimed turnouts of 70, even 80 percent of voters. In Massachusetts, 70 to 80 percent was the norm; sometimes, back in the 1920s and 1930s, 90 percent voted in many communities of Massachusetts. This time, the state turnout was barely 50 percent — 37 percent in Boston, same percent as voted in the city’s big mayoral election in 2013. Mayor elections once drew 60 to 70 percent of voters. Not now. Why not ?
What are the consequences of this non-participation ? Do they really matter much ?
I say that the consequences are enormous and do matter a lot. But first, the reasons why citizens aren’t voting :
( 1 ) politics has become enormously less participatory. Forty years ago and more, for example, almost all campaigning involved labor intensity. Doing a state-wide mailing required thousands of volunteers to fold brochures, insert them in envelopes, lick and stamp the envelopes, bag them bulk mail bags.. Today those huge mailings are done by hired mailer firms. Meanwhile, advocacy and single-issue interest groups do almost all the door knocking and GOTV work non election day. Ordinary volunteers aren’t needed or sought.
( 2 ) campaigns now cost so much money that candidates and their key people spend vast time raising money, thus much less time seeking out voters or doing voter registration drives. Registering people to vote is hard, slow, diligent work. Few people have time now to do it. Interest groups are focused on their already existing members. Party committees don’t organize registration drives. So no one does them. Black churches make for an exception; but even they can only reach people who are, or are related to, congregants. As newly registered voters are more likely to turn out than not, the lack of voter registration work holds down potential turnout.
( 3 ) the almost disappearance of political patronage has left campaigns without a ready source of dependable volunteers. First, it, used to be that many people, especially in cities, joined campaigns in order to seek patronage. That happens much less now. Second, patronage people can be counted on to do campaign work and are known; no time needs to spent finding them and training them how to do campaign work. Gratis volunteers need to be identified, and that comes chiefly from door knocking that today occurs much later in campaigns and chiefly by interest groups.
( 4 ) the dominance, in campaigns, of advertising has made citizens think of campaigns as a commercial imposition on them and done by strangers, not neighbors. People hate commercials. Campaigns whose major activity resembles commercials turn voters off rather than engage their enthusiasm.
( 5 ) Negative advertising is not only commercial, it’s bad gossip. The message of every negative ad is that politics is dirty and degrading, a whiff from the lowest of life. Not many voters want anything to do with that, nor should they. Voters, like all citizens, want to participate in doings that inspire them and make them feel that they are bettering their condition. Activities that proffer the opposite, people avoid like the plague.
( 6 ) Lastly, many voters feel that campaigns don’t really matter; that the powerful and the wealthy own the system and the process, so why bother. In this, the voters are right. Every one of the first five causes that I have listed arise from this biggest of all burdens on our democracy. Patronage was a sure way for the ordinary person to benefit from politics. Participation was an easy way for such a person to get noticed. Advertising shuts down the voices of ordinary voters. Money excludes all who don’t have much of it.
We instituted universal suffrage in order to enable everybody to participate more or less equally in directing our nation and its government., For the past 30 years we have done just about everything guaranteed to make universal participation feel useless, look unnecessary, make a waste of time and smell dirty., Is it any wonder that most of us now see it that way ?
Those who still vote are almost all people with a stake in the system and the process : activists, insiders, interest groups, political groupies, campaigners, candidates and their families.
I see no prospect that this trend will reverse. It’s not a happy time for those of us who believe that every vote should be cast and that each vote must count.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere