On a cold night in November 2008, the cheers of almost a quarter of a million people echoed around Grant Park, Chicago. For some, Barack Obama’s election heralded a turning point in America’s history, while for others the election of this 47-year-old man marked the ascendancy of Generation X. Looking back on that historic day, two things stand out: First, I have never seen so much passion and fervor surrounding an election. Second, despite this enthusiasm, voter turnout remained woefully low. In fact, only around a third of Americans actually voted Obama in.
A timeline has been established. In January 2010, an elected representative will replace Senator Paul G. Kirk Jr. ’60, the interim replacement for the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56. The Massachusetts senatorial race will be the first major election since November 4, 2008. We will have a unique opportunity to build on the excitement surrounding the presidential election and translate this into a high voter turnout. Why does voter turnout matter? I would argue that high voter turnout is one of the essential ingredients for a vibrant democratic society for three reasons.
Firstly, a high voter turnout is the only way of ensuring that our democratically elected representatives truly represent the majority. There’s no doubt that President Obama’s victory was resounding. Fifty two percent of all voters supported him. However, it transpires that, even in that most exceptional presidential election of 2008, only 64 percent of eligible voters actually turned out to vote. The outcome was that only around one in three Americans actually voted for President Obama. This is not a new phenomenon; low voter turnout may be regarded as the norm rather than the exception in presidential elections. Indeed, voter turnout in 2008, at 64 percent, appears to have been the highest for a generation. Likewise, it is not an issue unique to the U.S. Many of the world’s largest and wealthiest democracies have seen a similar gradual decline in voter turnout. This needs to be addressed so that future governments can claim with conviction that they truly are acting on behalf of the people when enacting major reforms, whether that is reform related to health-care or carbon emissions.
Secondly, those who do not vote tend to be the most deprived and disadvantaged members of society. The reasons are both cultural and logistical. Logistically, it can be difficult to get to a polling station while cultural reasons include voter fatigue, cynicism, and sense of alienation. Whatever the reason, the end result is the same. Low voter turnout in these vulnerable sections of society results in their under-representation in government, reinforcing their feeling of disenfranchisement.
Finally, we could regard voting as a civic duty in recognition of the past and ongoing sacrifices made by men and women in the name of democracy. The struggle for universal suffrage has been both long and turbulent. It began in 1775 with the War of Independence and it continues to this very day. In many parts of the world, people are still denied the right to vote on the basis of gender and race.
The people of Australia, a country that bears many cultural, geographic, and demographic similarities to the U.S., realized the problems surrounding low voter turnout and introduced compulsory voting in 1925. All men and women of voting age are legally required to register at a polling station on the day of elections and have their opinion counted. The result is a turnout that is consistently greater than 90 percent.
So what can the inhabitants of this leafy corner of Massachusetts do about low voter turnout? In the longer term, we need to debate measures such as the introduction of compulsory voting. However, regarding the senatorial election on January 19, 2010, we need to publicize the election in papers such as The Harvard Crimson and on student radio and television stations. But our efforts should not begin and end at the Charles River. We should be knocking on doors and handing out fliers encouraging people to turn out and vote regardless of their political hue. By doing this, we’ll be playing a small but important part in encouraging the notion of a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people.
Jaykar R. Panchmatia is a graduate student at the Harvard School of Public Health.