Voting is something everyone who is of voting age should do. It’s a chance to participate in democracy — to influence the future actions of our governmental institutions. As Cicero said, “Freedom is participation in power.” When more people vote, there is more participation in power, there is more democracy and there is more freedom for the citizens of the United States.
The U.S. has had a low voter participation rate for some time now. As PBS reports, only 36.4 percent of the voting age population voted in the 1998 elections. The U.S. voter participation rate that year ranked 139th out of 172 countries internationally. Until the voter participation bump in 2008, the voting rate went down even further. Of course that voting rate has gone up since 2008, reaching between 40 and 50 percent in 2010 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Many factors can be attributed to America’s low voter participation rate as compared to other industrialized democracies, although no one factor is dispositive. One reason may be our highly rigid two-party political system. When there are only two political parties, people can be turned off to voting, and possibly to politics in general. This is because the political parties tend to be either dominated by partisans who push away centrist voters or, alternatively, run by centrists that turn off partisan voters.
In short, there aren’t enough viably electable political parties to represent everyone’s views adequately.
A report by Rafael López Pintor, Maria Gratschew and Kate Sullivan showed that most countries in Europe have a higher voter participation rate than the U.S. Coincidentally, many European nations have multiply party systems and or proportional representation in their nation’s legislatures.
Another reason for low voter turnout may be that some voters think the process is rigged from the start and thus there isn’t a point to voting. One can understand this viewpoint, after seeing restrictive voter ID laws enacted nationwide and witnessing the U.S. Supreme Court hold in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money in elections. This isn’t right, and it isn’t good policy — but it should serve to increase motivation for people to vote, not less.
Voting is not just a right — it is also a responsibility. The leaders we vote for have the political power to do great, and unfortunately sometimes terrible things. So we must make them earn our vote with intelligent and workable policies.
Democracy does not end with voting — this is only the beginning. Citizenship and civics is just as important. Once the election ends, lobbyists, politicians and public opinion take center stage. As citizens we must be engaged in the political process on a daily basis, even if it’s just with family and friends. By doing this we shape public opinion and as a result, shape the decisions of our elected political leaders.
No matter what political party controls our legislative or executive branches, my political views and opinions on public policy won’t change a whole lot. I will always support a single-payer health care system, stringent oversight of Wall Street investment banks and the trades they make, and environmental regulation. It is my duty as a citizen, to advocate for the policies I believe in. We must all be active citizens after this election, because a functional and vibrant democracy requires daily citizenship.
Aaron Loudenslager ([email protected]) is a first year law student.