I woke up at about 2:00 this morning after dosing off with all the lights on. I grumpily surfaced to acknowledge that I had completely failed at adult bedtime. I hadn’t brushed my teeth or taken my Omega 3s or set my alarm or locked the door, and OMG who won Iowa?
If the results of the Iowa caucus aren’t keeping you up at night, you’re not alone. However, while I haven’t seen any official numbers yet, it looks like voter turn-out was better than expected. With less than 1/3 of eligible voters expected to turn out to caucus, we’re looking at a pretty low bar. Americans define ourselves by our democracy-our ability to elect our own leaders and be part of the decision making process on the issues that directly affect us. So why don’t we vote?
The 2014 midterm elections showed the worst voter turnout since 1942 with only 36% of eligible voters casting ballots. The more educated and more affluent are more likely to vote, and women under 65 are more likely to vote than men of the same age. But what’s really happening here? Are the registration process and voter ID laws to blame?
Roadblocks to voting are certainly a factor, but when the U.S. Census Bureau asked people why they did not vote, only 6% reported issues with registration, transportation, or polling locations. The disenfranchised are notoriously underrepresented in polls like this, so I suspect the number is somewhat higher than that, and we need to do a better job at making sure everyone has the opportunity to cast a ballot. Another 11% of respondents cited disability or illness, and this too must be addressed.
There are minor tweaks that could make voting more accessible to everyone including same day voter registration, mail in ballots, and creating a National Holiday for elections as proposed by Bernie Sanders. These are crucial steps to creating a true participatory democracy. But they don’t address the primary reasons people do not vote.
A whopping 28% of those who didn’t vote stated it was because they didn’t have the time. I call bullshit. Making it to the polls during a 12 hour window is not always easy. Shit happens. The sitter cancels, meetings go late, there’s a pileup on the highway. But 28%? Like the many things we don’t make time for in our lives, voting is just not that big of a priority. The second leading cause according to the survey was “Not interested” at 16% with an additional 8% saying they didn’t like the candidates or the issues involved. At least those people were honest. That gives you over half of people not voting because they didn’t care enough to make the time.
Apathy is a difficult problem to tackle. Convincing people that their vote matters may be an uphill battle. The first step is to get rid of the Electoral College. It’s long out dated and makes people like me who vote blue in a red state feel like their time would be better spent getting a latte, at least during presidential elections. How can we expect our millennials to believe in populism if we don’t even have a popular vote? Civic Engagement should be an important part of high school education. Every Social Studies teacher in every high school should have a stack of registration forms to hand out to students as they turn 18. Maybe we could spend a little less time on the War of 1812 and a little more on modern policy. Which might be actually interesting. How about a class on how Flint managed to poison all its children with lead instead of 6 weeks of the Bolshevik Revolution? Would that create a classroom full of people who believe it matters what our elected officials do? Would it perhaps prevent a modern day Bolshevik Revolution?
It shouldn’t be that difficult to convince people that it matters whether Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders is president. We need to create a culture where every citizen feels they have a role in making that choice. Go vote. Make the time. Take a friend.