Judith Shklar’s argument about the importance of voting in American Citizenship focuses primarily on suffrage as a form of societal standing. She leaves some conclusions undeveloped, particularly with regards to why American voter turnout is and has been low in spite of (or due to) its importance in social standing. I believe finding out a conclusive answer about why this is the case along with producing some remedies to this immense problem should be critical goals of scholars, political scientists, and government officials in the coming future. For evidence that low voter turnout is a genuine, immediate, and significant problem, we need look no further than to the incoming presidential election and the two major-party nominees that have been hoisted upon us all.
A startling column from the New York Times in August illustrated common knowledge in a fresh way; very, very few Americans genuinely support either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. As of now, much of the support for each comes from competing against the other candidate. Yet, both candidates emerged victorious from their respective parties’ primaries. How few supporters does each candidate have? Together, the voting blocs from the primaries for Trump and Clinton combined make up a whopping 9% of all Americans–only 14% of eligible voters in total–and yet this limited number have selected the final two choices for us all.
Less than a third of the total eligible voters this year (~60M) voted in the presidential primary. A slightly bigger third will vote in the general election but didn’t in the primary, and a final third (the largest) won’t vote at all. The implications of these numbers are astounding. If, say, a mere one-third of the voters who will go vote in the general but did not bother to vote in the primary (~73M) had participated in the primary as well–assuming an even split between the parties–then over ten million additional voters would have taken part in each major party’s primary. Considering Hillary and Trump won their primaries with 15 and 13 million votes respectively, this “semi-involved” bloc of voters ought to recognize the deep reservoir of their own power. If you take just half of those “semi-involved” voters and plop somebody on the ticket they’ll vote in tandem for, you will win–decimate–whichever primary you want to partake in.
This same argument could easily be applied to third parties. It’s often upsetting for third party supporters to hear that their candidate has no chance to win when the straight-up math says otherwise. There are an immense number of voters in this country, and the vast majority of them did not select Trump or Clinton as their choice for nominee. 14% of voters did. That’s it. Almost an equal number of primary voters actually voted for other candidates–Cruz, Bush, Kasich, Rubio, and Sanders. There is nothing even near a consensus on either side with regards to who their nominees should be, and the strength of this consensus is further reduced through the limited participation of the people in general.
Participation, is crucial though. This is the main point I’m digging at. Without participation in the primaries, those 70 million who decided to just wait for the general instead and the 80 million who aren’t voting regardless have no voice. They dislike and distrust the nominees at historic levels. But at the end of the day, their negative opinions do not matter to the politicians or affect the outcome at all, and that is solely a result of their choice not to participate in our system by voting.
I will make a brief note here about the barriers to voting, which I recognize as mostly systematic (and often partisan) in nature, and can accordingly be fixed through more effective implementation. Take our own 2016 presidential preference election (primary) in Arizona. Maricopa County restricted the number of polling places to less than a third of their prior total–from 200 to 60. And last time around in 2012, there was no (extraordinarily) contentious race for the Democratic Primary either, so the cuts to the polling places–in the name of the bureaucratic catch-all, “cutting costs”–is inexcusable. These are the sorts of issues that decrease voter turnout and are wholly preventable. Other issues, like voter ID laws, also impact voter turnout negatively, but the effect is somewhat tiny in the big picture. Good, accessible elections are the bedrock of any nation that considers itself a democracy; those flaws and shortcomings need correction, it goes without saying. The fact of the matter is that the participatory part of our participatory democracy is vitally lacking in vigor. That is an issue which no law has created and no event has catalyzed–it is simply a fact of our collective being. “We” could use a serious attitude adjustment.
Some greats of the past have warned of “too much democracy” or a “tyranny of the majority” running our country into the ground, but a far greater threat has materialized instead: the specter of apathy. A “tyranny of the majority” is impossible when the overall number who vote hardly constitute a majority in the first place. Split them into different teams, and it becomes clear that the tyranny which we fear comes not from the unwashed, uninterested (non-voting) masses–no majority here–but from the motivated minority that do their part actively–through voting–to elevate their favored candidates to victory. Those who fail to cast their votes end up in a group that is irrelevant and voiceless, no matter its size. The only way to counter this trend is with more voting, which means that the “semi-involved” and utterly apathetic among us need to overcome their dark impulse to stay home on (any!) election day. They–We, 86% 0f us eligible voters–missed their/our first chance to stop Trump and Hillary in the primaries, though perhaps they/we can figure out within a month’s time that they/we can stop them yet. If recent electoral history is any indicator, I wouldn’t count on “We” stopping the imminent trainwreck set for November 8.