I remember hearing that old saw, ’if you don’t vote, you can’t complain.’ That used to tick me off. Why can’t I complain, it’s something I can do that doesn’t require much effort. Besides if I don’t complain how will anything get started?
As members of a society that calls itself a democracy, we Americans largely don’t vote. It’s not a requirement and no one will come knocking at the door to make sure you vote. If a police officer stops you for going too fast in a school zone, he won’t also write you up for not having an “I Voted” sticker on your shirt pocket. Maybe he should. Maybe not voting should hurt – it does in some countries. In Australia, for example if you fail to vote, you could be hauled before the court and, if found guilty, have to pay a fine of $50 plus court costs.
President Obama won the election of 2008 in what UPI called a “blowout”. He won with a margin of 52% to 46% over John McCain. Sounds like a lot; but it should be remembered that according to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), only 56.8% of the registered voters even voted. Indeed, we have to go back to 1968 to find a higher turnout number than that. So that means that roughly only half of the people who should have voted actually did vote and roughly half of those voted for Obama. That means that roughly one-quarter of the population decided who the president and vice president were going to be. In 2016 the statistics were really no better at 59.7%. From the point of view of democracy, that is rough.
And it’s far worse for national elections that are not for President and Vice President – the so-called mid-term elections. According to the FEC (Federal Election Commission), since 1960 no mid-term election has broken the 50% barrier for turnout. So, far fewer than half of the population dictates how we all live and are governed in the United States.
So why don’t people vote? There have been numerous studies on that very question. Economists Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter studied the voting tabulations from 56,000 elections going back over 100 years and found a total of 7 where the result was decided by one vote. Indeed, there is a rational case to be made for not voting. In the 2008 election, what would have happened had you not voted or voted for the other candidate? Literally, nothing. Nothing would have happened had you voted for the other guy, wrote in another name, or not voted at all. But obviously, you were not the only person who voted or didn’t vote.
If you build a house out of bricks, you stack the bricks on one at a time. That is the only way it will work. You may stack 10 at a time but that is because you have 10 masons each stacking individual bricks. At the end of it you have stacked all of the bricks and built the house. Voting works like that with one big exception; at the end of the vote, all the votes are tallied. But the tally includes only the votes that were cast. If 10% of the people vote then only 10% of the registered vote is counted. All of the ballots are counted, or supposed to be counted, but the actual vote may not represent what the people decide because not all of the people voted. It would be like building a couple of walls and a section of doorway and calling that a house. That’s all you get because it’s all the bricks you had. Enjoy the house.
If you complained about the house, you might be justified but you only bothered to get 40% of the bricks you needed so you got 40% of the house you wanted.
Too many people will complain about the society, or the laws, or the politicians and then, when given the tool to fix the situation, not use it. You hear things like “They are all bad so I won’t vote for anybody” or “I won’t vote for a criminal”. That sentiment is understandable and not fully unjustified but it seals the fact that the minority dictates policy as we saw in the example before.
There is a saying that has gone pretty much viral that says, “If voting were really effective, they would make it illegal.” The truth is that voting is frighteningly effective. The right wing knows that which is why suppressing the vote is part of the Republican plan to win elections. That is why laws designed to keep poor and minority people from voting are being instituted all over the country. Those people tend to vote for Democrats. Some years back Citigroup issued a memo to management that they had pretty well subverted or rewritten all laws designed to regulate the banking industry. The only hurdle they could not get over was the idea of one-person-one-vote. Fortunately for democracy, they have yet to find a way to do that.
In a speech given to religious conservatives in 1980, conservative activist Paul Weyrich spoke about what he called the “goo-goo syndrome”. It stood for good government – spelling not being a priority. “These people think everybody should vote. I don’t want everybody to vote”. Weyrich correctly pointed out that political elections are never won by the majority of voters but by a majority of the minority that vote. And conservatives learned how to use that as a power grabbing tool.
That is why we need to vote.