We Americans love to brag about the strength of our democracy, but a surprising number of us do not actually participate in the democratic system. Some citizens have legitimate reasons for not getting to the polls, but with the easy availability of absentee ballots and early voting, many eligible voters don’t cast their ballot simply because they cannot be bothered. Voting should be seen as a personal obligation for all citizens. Indeed, higher voter turnout rates would result in a political process that would be more effective and appeal to more Americans.
In a short New York Times Op-Doc, filmmaker Errol Morris interviewed young voters asking why they chose (or chose not) to vote. One said that his grandmother, who was black, could not vote until she was 43, so he would vote to honor her legacy. Another said that voting was a cheap thrill. Another said, “part of being young means that we still believe we can change the world,” so we should vote to do our part.
These reasons are all perfectly reasonable, perhaps even admirable, but they are all fundamentally self-centered. I think that this points toward a greater, troublesome trend in American politics: young people think that they only need to be politically engaged to the extent that they will personally benefit from their own engagement. There is little talk about civic responsibility, and this is not just a problem for the “me” generation.
The obvious effect of our self-centered approach to politics is our abysmal voter turnout rate. 200 million Americans are eligible to vote, but only half of them will cast a ballot in presidential election years. We trail all of Western Europe in this regard.
Low turnout rates have a real and negative effect on American politics. Knowing that many Americans will not get to the polls, campaigns spend most of their time and money trying to energize their party base. This has the effect of pushing candidates away from the political center and towards their party’s ideological extreme.
Campaign strategists know that the deciding votes will not be cast by moderate independents, but by those on the ideological fringe, whose decision to go to the polls will boost a candidate’s vote count. This thinking seems to play a large role in the barrage of slanderous advertising and negative tactics seen in recent campaigns. Flagrant negativity in campaigning often means that those who do vote for a candidate do so out of disgust for his or her opponent, rather than a feeling that he or she will govern well.
There is a small group that that benefits from this increased polarization: those in the radical wing of the party that wins an election. Their candidate becomes more partisan during the election and eventually takes office. For the majority of Americans, however, political polarization has a negative effect. Moderation tends to help everyone, and our current system discourages that practice.
If so many people would benefit from increased voter participation, why do we continue to see such pathetic turnout at the polls? To find an answer, we return to the self-centered nature of our political involvement.
Each individual vote will not do very much to increase voter turnout. Assuming approximately 100 million voting Americans, each individual vote will only increase voter turnout percentage at the 8th decimal place—not much of a difference. For people who want to change the world, casting one vote is not going to do the trick. I cannot imagine it being much of a “thrill” to know that I have increased voter turnout by 0.00000001 percent.
The low turnout, then, is essentially an example of the tragedy of the commons. While we all would benefit from a world in which everyone cast a ballot, our own individual actions do not do very much to further that goal. In contrast, we judge that there is a high personal cost to voting in terms of the inconvenience of getting to the polls or mailing an absentee ballot. We value our time highly, and want to spend it doing things that make more than a 0.00000001 percent change.
A sense of personal obligation to vote would both increase turnout and benefit most Americans, but it is unlikely that such an obligation can be instilled in the voting populace anytime soon. The closest thing that most of us come to a sense of obligation is the somewhat common sentiment that “if you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” By this logic, we are obligated to vote because voting earns us the right to whine for the next four years. This is hardly a commendable line of reasoning.
The New York Times’ documentary featured one voter who said that he voted because, “it’s not about you; it’s about all of us.” Unfortunately, this sentiment is scarce in today’s political climate. If more people took the view that voting should not be done out of self-serving motivations, but rather from an obligation as an American citizen, we would start to see a more effective, moderate, and civil political system. That would benefit everyone.
Nick M. Phillips ’16 is a crimson editorial comper in Greenough Hall.