Imagine that you are a person who doesn’t vote. For you the election is over, the votes have been cast and counted. It’s business as usual, another boring election, time to go back to our normal lives until we have to do this again in four years. Although this time was different, your friends and family did talk about the election, and you paid a little more attention to it. Maybe this time your are really upset with the outcome. But still, you didn’t vote so it’s not your fault right? One vote wouldn’t matter anyway, right? Wrong! It is every eligible citizen’s responsibility to vote.
But did you actually vote in the last election? If you are a socially minded person most likely you did since it was a presidential election, one that was very much talked about. Although despite the high public interest into this election Dr. Michael P. McDonald, Associate Professor at the University of Florida Department of Political Science, estimates that of the total eligible voting population only sixty percent did in fact vote in the 2016 U.S election. This means that on average four out of ten eligible American voters chose not to vote. This low voter turnout rate is a threat to the functions of our participatory democracy. If the eligible citizens are not voting then the issues they care about are not going to be addressed, and this is exactly what is happening all over America.
We need to fight this problem because the right to vote is such a valued privilege and we are taking it for granted. Thus , the key to solving this problem is to have an informed society of eligible voters who play an active role in the political process. To reach this goal we should look at the history of voting to appreciate how fortunate we are to even be able to vote. Then we should look at the reasons why some do not participate in politics and tackle these issues with real solutions. If we succeed we will have a much better society of voters whose needs, will, and opinions are cared for by their government.
To begin let us look at the history of voting. When America first started the Constitution gave the individual States the responsibility to choose which people would be eligible to vote, this difference of who can and who cannot vote is known as enfranchisement and disenfranchisement respectively and would be changed multiple times as the states determine who they want enfranchised. At first the majority of states gave the right only to white landowning males, along with other criteria such as requiring that they be a member of a certain religion. The history of these restrictions are extensively catalogued in THE EVOLUTION OF SUFFRAGE INSTITUTIONS IN THE NEW WORLD by Stanley L Engerman and Kenneth L. Sokoloff , and they say that during the start of this nation, despite changes to requirements, “In no colony, however, was there a serious challenge to the notion that suffrage should be restricted to property owners” (Engerman and Sokoloff 7). So if these limitations were still in place only white landowners males would be allowed to vote, and that is a tiny fraction of the current population of the United States. This means that the political power would in the hands of a few and they could easily impose their wishes on the rest of us. This is not the American way.
So are you a white landowning male? If you are not you should feel damn lucky people like you and I now have the right to vote. In fact, enfranchisement would not be given to all white men until 1856, explained by Engerman and Sokoloff,
“By 1840, only three states retained a property qualification, North Carolina (for some state-wide offices only), Rhode Island, and Virginia. In 1856 North Carolina was the last state to end the practice”(16).
The next people to be added to the franchise were non-white men and freed slaves with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This was passed 5 years after the Civil War during “The Reconstruction” and was intended to end the disenfranchisement of any citizen based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. Unfortunately this amendment was largely suppressed in the South by use of “Jim Crow laws”, these laws effectively kept the African American population of the South from voting and in fact effectively kept many in a position similar to slavery.
This oppression would not stop until the 1960’s with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed the rights of non- whites to vote. Because of this all non-whites should be exercising their right to vote, as it was valiantly fought for.
The last big addition to the franchise came with the passage the Nineteenth Amendment. This amendment was thanks to the efforts of what is known as the “women’s suffrage movement” and would not have been added were it not for the hard work of strong women like Carrie Chapman Catt and Susan B. Anthony. According to Sara M. Evans in her book Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America , if it was not for the hard work Catt as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) we might not have gotten the Nineteenth Amendment passed(Evans, 172). Meaning that if not for these champions for female voting rights millions of women across the country might not have the right to vote. For this all women should be proudly exercising their right that was so exhaustively fought for.
Now that we understand a little bit of the history of the right to vote and why we should all be appreciative that we are even allowed to, let us look at some of the reasons why people still are not turning out for the vote.
So, why don’t people vote? According to Scott Clement of the Washington Post, “Being ‘too busy’ tops the list of reasons, followed by general lack of interest, illness, being out of town, simply forgetting, and disliking the candidates or the issues.”. These are not substantial reasons but we must take them seriously if we are going to reform people’s behavior. So it seems that some just simply don’t have the time to go to a polling station and wait in line to vote. Luckily in today’s world you don’t have to. Many people may not know this, but it is entirely possible to vote without ever leaving your house. The solution is mail in ballots.
The first step to voting through the mail is to register to vote. Indeed this is the first step all non registered voters need to take. Thankfully, according to usa.gov you can register to vote online in 31 states including California. If you live in one of the other 19 states that do not have the option to register online you can still download the National Mail Voter Registration Form in a pdf file. The website informs that “You can fill it out onscreen and print the completed form, or print the blank form and fill it out by hand. Remember to sign the form before mailing it to the location listed for your state”. Perhaps if more people new of these options they would have voted. Hopefully now you know you can always be prepared to vote no matter how busy your life gets.
Now, let us say that you have the time to vote but you don’t necessarily agree with the candidates or the bills be proposed. First off, that is very understandable in today’s political climate. To solve this problem takes some self reflection. It is important for all voters to carefully decide what their political positions are. We should note that just because you once believed in one idea doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind when new information is brought to light. When deciding which positions you want to take, a good place to start is to look at the party platforms. You see, American politics is dominated by the two party system, the Democrats and Republicans, and the majority of Americans are members of one of them. The platform is a list of all the important beliefs and positions held by that party. You can review the Republican platform at gop.com/platform/ and the Democratic platform at democrats.org/party-platform. Although when reviewing their platforms you should consider that they are probably going to use the most persuasive language to make their beliefs seem noble and right, when in fact the politicians of that party do not tend to vote in a way that reflects their platform. One must be diligent in looking out for beliefs that are only posted by politicians to appeal to voters.
Now there are other parties in the U.S. that you should also consider. The most prominent today are the Libertarians and the Green Party. These two parties are known “third party” in reference to the Democrats’ and Republicans’ strong hold over U.S. politics. The beliefs of these two parties are almost complete opposite, except when it comes to being socially liberal.. For example, The Libertarians presidential candidate in the 2016 election, Gary Johnson believes in having a much smaller and less powerful executive branch.
His beliefs can be summed up in his own words as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” this means that he believes the government should not be spending as much as it does and also that the government should not be telling people how to live their lives. Now you can read more about him and his party’s beliefs at www.lp.org/issues/.
The Green Party on the other hand believes the government should be doing more to ensure “Peace and Nonviolence, Ecological Wisdom, Grassroots Democracy, and Social Justice”. The party was able to get their candidate Jill Stein on the Presidential ballot in 2016.
She advocates for what she call a “Green New Deal” much like FDR’s “New Deal” that enacted to end the Great Depression. According to Jill herself “The green in the Green New Deal means that we can solve our jobs problem as we build the economy of the future a sustainable, green economy that protects the environment as the core foundation for economic prosperity”. This means that she would create more jobs by focusing on environment friendly initiative’s. This would all be done through the U.S.A’s executive branch, much to the dismay libertarians like Johnson. You can read more Jill and the Green Party at gp.org/about.
Now that you are aware of all the political parties and their separate beliefs you can decide for yourself if you wish to join one. Of course, you can always decide to remain an independent, that is a person who is not affiliated with any party. As an independent you may be considered what is known as an swing voter, someone whose vote is not guaranteed to either party and is therefore a highly sought after vote. Political campaigns often try to attract as many swing voters as they can. In light of this there are many benefits to being an independent, as noted by W. E. Messamore in his article “50 Reasons To Register Independent”. One of these reasons being that “Parties inevitably degenerate into an ‘us vs. them’ mentality.” This is true and what it means is that people often times get swept up in the pride and confidence one has with their party. This is a natural fallacy of the human condition where we take unnecessary pride in our decisions even if they may not be best. This can lead to people voting for things they don’t really believe in but they do it to stick to the party line. For this reason it can be a good decision to remain unaffiliated with a party. Now if you are going to be one of these independent voters it important that you stay highly informed on the issues, as it is with all voters. Personally, I routinely register as an independent, as this way I am won of the sought after swing votes that the political parties are fighting for.
In conclusion, with all this information we are now able to go out be an informed voters! For this we must always remember the struggle our forefathers fought in order that we all could have the right to vote. We must always stay informed on the different political beliefs and movements occurring in our time. And finally we must always remember to register to vote on time!
Now go out there and vote!
- Engerman, Stanley L, and Kenneth L. Sokoloff THE EVOLUTION OF SUFFRAGE INSTITUTIONS IN THE NEW WORLD. February 2005.
- Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York: The Free Press, 1989, pp. 164-172.
- Collins, Eliza. “Libertarian Gary Johnson Launches Presidential Bid, Lowers Expectations.” POLITICO. POLITICO, 06 Jan. 2016. Web. 15 May 2017.
- Stein, Jill E. JOBS FOR ALL WITH A GREEN NEW DEAL. September 5, 2011
- Messamore,W. E. 50 Reasons To Register Independent.Electoral Reform. Oct 22, 2012.
- Dr. McDonald, Michael P. 2016 November General Election : Turnout Rates. http://www.electproject.org, 2017.
- Myers, John. California’s 2014 Voter Turnout Was Even Worse Than You Thought. KQED News, 22 May 2015.
- Clement, Scott. Why don’t Americans vote? We’re “too busy.”. Washington, 2015.
Article in The Washington Post about low voter turnout in America. Specifically, the 2014 elections which had a notable decrease in voter turnout. 2014 was not a presidential election but the turnout was still low compared to other elections like it. This article examines the reasons why this happened.
- File, Thom. Young-Adult Voting: An Analysis of Presidential Elections. 1964-2012. U.S.A., 2014.
Published and found at the census.gov library, this article analyses the behaviour of young voters from 1964 to 2012. In the introduction it says of the article “The main questions addressed in this analysis concern how important young-adult voting has been in the past, particularly recent presidential elections, and how important it may become in the future.”
- K, D (pseudonym). Why young people don’t vote. Washington DC, 2014.
Article which although it was published under a pseudonym it should be noted this is the tradition at The Economist. The article describes and examines the fact that “turnout at elections is far lower for young people than any other” demographic.
- Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York, 2000.
Keyssar is a Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard University. It is a detailed account of the struggle for the right to vote from the American Revolution to the end of the twentieth century. Useful to show struggle many went through to fight for the right to vote.
- Highton, Benjamin. Voter Identification Laws and Turnout in the United States. Connecticut, 2017.
Written by a Professor at the U.C. Davis political science department who teaches and conducts research in the areas of public opinion, elections, and research methods. This article examines voter laws in the United States and how they affect voter turnout.
- Hajnal, Zoltan; et al. Voter Identification Laws and the Suppression of Minority Votes. Chicago, 2017.
Zoltan Hajnal, Nazita Lajevardi, and Lindsay Nielson are able to show that strict identification laws have a differentially negative impact voter turnout “By using validated voting data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study for several recent elections, we are able to offer a more definitive test”.
- Green, Donald ; Alan S. Gerber. Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout. Washington D.C., 2015.
This book is a great source of reasons why the most important part of elections is that everyone is sharing their opinions, and the only that is possible is if as many people vote as possible.
- “U.S. Voting Rights”Infoplease.com.Infoplease. 10/2015. 5/11/2017 accessed.
Timeline of voting rights in America. Publicly known info put in a easy to digest timeline.