Last evening, as I was frantically strapping my son into his carseat to dash to our neighborhood polling place in time to vote in the Seattle primaries (30 minutes before the deadline), I had occasion to wonder: why is voting such a hassle? The way we vote is, unlike almost any other activity in our 21st century lives, inflexible and user-unfriendly. We must show up at a particular place on a particular day between certain hours. We cannot choose a time that accommodates our schedules, nor can we vote from home. As a result, most people don’t vote. National representatives in this country are chosen by less than 50% of eligible voters, and the percentages are smaller in state and local elections.
What should be done?
I’m of two minds.
On one hand, you might think: voting is not supposed to be easy. It’s not supposed to be casual or an afterthought. It’s a serious responsibility and should be reserved for those who are willing to undertake the minimal effort required to fulfill it.
On the other hand, not-voting and not-caring seem to form a vicious circle. Low voter turnout means that election campaigns are aimed disproportionately at the extreme partisans and one-issue special interests that do vote. As fewer people show genuine interest in the issues, the media offers less substantive coverage, and politicians must raise more and more money to create what amounts to manipulative, emotion-based propaganda. Legislation is increasingly created by and designed to benefit large-pocketed donors. And so on. The consequences of political apathy in this country are severe and well-documented.
So, we either change the way we live to make it more vote-friendly, or we change the way we vote to make it more lifestyle-friendly. Since Americans seem to have lost all appreciation of the public sphere and public spaces (as I’ve written about before), it seems unlikely that the bifurcation of American life into exclusively commercial and exclusively private spheres is going to be reversed. So we had best bite the bullet and make voting something that people are actively encouraged to do, and something that is user-friendly, easy, and doable from the privacy of one’s own home. It’s generally agreed that online voting isn’t ready for primetime, but it could be with a coordinated national push for standard safety mechanisms (and, of course, always, always a clear paper trail).
Increased voter turnout would not only mean more democratic government, it would mean more Democrats in government — the demographics that vote the least are the ones most likely to vote Democrat: poor, minorities, etc. Low voter turnout — combined with the disproportionate representation of traditionally Republican states in the electoral college — means that Republicans have a far greater presence in government than is warranted. It is for this reason that Republicans always fight changes in the census to more accurately reflect population, and changes in voting methods to increase turnout. It is to their benefit to have as few people vote as possible — they are, after all, not acting on behalf of common people, but on behalf of their donors.
Anyway, enough ranting. Get out and vote.