Yesterday was Election Day. Millions of eligible voters did not cast ballots. I used to wonder why Democrats could not prevent such a significant drop off between midterm and presidential election turnouts, until I accepted that many voters quite rationally see their lives unaffected casting ballots.
Many find non-voting to be repellent. Progressives can’t believe people think it makes no difference whether a pro-choice, green Democratic Senator like Colorado’s Mark Udall defeats the anti-choice, right wing zealot Cory Gardner. There is so much evidence that who we elect makes a real difference that we cannot fathom why the working and lower-income voters who government could most help don’t go to the polls.
Many blame voter cynicism on big money dominating politics. I see the far bigger problem as the structural obstacles to majority rule that typifies U.S. “democracy.”
Tyranny of the Minority
While the media does routinely bemoan money’s impact on politics, it rarely challenges the belief that the nation is governed by majority rule.
Americans believe that the United States is the “cradle” of democracy. Yet supermajority two-thirds votes dominate the U.S. Senate. And as we learned when Democrats controlled Congress in Obama’s first two years, filibuster rules require 60 votes on most key Senate legislation.
These supermajorities mean that the type of “real change” that Obama’s 2008 victory promised does not happen. This leaves infrequent voters who cast ballots frustrated, and discouraged from voting until the next presidential election. Presidents, unlike Congress, do have real, unilateral power, which is why voter turnout is higher in presidential election cycles (we will soon see an example of this power when Obama finally legalizes millions of undocumented immigrants).
While the media does routinely bemoan money’s impact on politics, it rarely challenges the belief that the nation is governed by majority rule. For example, it reports that immigration reform didn’t get done in 2009-10 despite Democrats controlling Congress, implying that Republican opposition was not the problem. But the problem was that there were never 60 Senate votes for immigration reform in Obama’s first two years. It now looks like the watered-down reform bill that passed the Senate earlier this year only did so because Republican Senators knew it would not pass the House.
If Senate supermajority requirements were not bad enough, we have an activist Supreme Court throwing out voter and Congress-passed legislation. Given these undemocratic obstacles to real change, we should perhaps marvel that more people have not stopped voting.
Barriers to Voting
For those who do choose to vote, no “democratic” country makes it more difficult. Remember when there was a big push to expand the electorate through early voting, same-day registration, and other strategies for increasing turnout? Well, these methods worked too well. Republicans, typically backed by their political allies on the Supreme Court, have imposed so many new burdens that some people already ambivalent about casting ballots have given up.
Student identification not valid in Texas for voting? Add this to new restrictions on early voting, early registration requirements, laws barring ex-felons from voting and the lack of polling places in low-income communities and no wonder voting is down.
We don’t even hear progressive politicians and organizations calling for Saturday elections—it’s seen as a lost cause. But many with long work commutes feel they literally do not have time to vote, a problem not an issue for the many countries holding weekend elections.
And if we start talking about the many Democratic politicians that run as populists but then vote and/or govern to protect the 1%, there becomes even more reason for low-income voters to stay home.
As you look at yesterday’s national results and castigate Democratic-leaning constituencies for a lower turnout than 2012, realize that’s a classic case of blaming the victim.