May 2, 2017
In the post-mortem since the 2016 Presidential Election, reasons abound for why only 58.1 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote, leaving the United States in the tiny hands of the most unprepared, uninformed, and dangerous president in American history. These reasons run the gamut from diehard Bernie voters having refused to choose between two candidates that were, well, not Bernie Sanders to people who are tired of the two-party system; egregious misogyny and Russian-bot propaganda worked to turn people against Hillary, to disillusioned citizens who felt their vote didsn’t count because of the Electoral College. And on.
The truth is, however, that number is shockingly not a historic low, which might be an even more telling detail about Americans’ relationship to voting. According to infamous statistician Nate Silver (who was dead to me for some months after predicting a Hillary Clinton landslide), that number is down only a smidge from 2012, when turnout was 58.6 percent, and well above 2000’s rate of 54.2 percent.
While it’s easy to cry voter apathy, experts and those who did not vote claim it’s a far more complex issue. Into the mix we must consider voter frustration and disenfranchisement with the two-party system and big money in politics, the GOP’s nefarious voter suppression efforts, and access issues for the working class, the low-income, and convicted felons, who can’t vote, and are rarely encouraged to re-register to vote when released from prison.
Then you take the Tea Party–led efforts to institute restrictive voting laws in 14 states, which tend to impact people of color the most, and it looks less like apathy and more like disgust with a system that puts politicians’ pockets before American’s desires.
John Opdycke, President of Open Primaries, a national think tank and action center working to promote primary reform, says that voters are likely frustrated by the fact that “there is virtually no connection at all between the opinions and views of the American people and the types of policies that get pursued and enacted by our politicians according to academic research.” Under those conditions, he says “I’m amazed that anybody votes.”
And yet they do. 58.1 percent still translates to millions of people who do their civic duty.
When People Don’t Vote
While many people have a painful reckoning when they learn how the Electoral College actually elects our president over the popular vote, often deeming the system broken, one vote-abstainer, Elizabeth King of Minnesota, who leans to the left, argues that the system is working, for a select group of people. “I believe our neoliberal pseudo-democracy is functioning exactly as it is intended to, which is to preserve a status quo that favors the white, the male, the straight, the wealthy, etc.” King did not vote in the 2016 Election, as a way of aligning her beliefs with her consumer habits. For her, abstaining from a vote was a form of opting out she compares to choosing to be a vegetarian.
However, she does say that if she had been registered to vote in a swing county, “I very possibly would have voted for Hillary Clinton,” and the same goes for the future. If she lives in a swing county in a swing state, she would consider voting. Not voting does not mean she doesn’t care, however. “I would contend that showing up to demonstrations, organizing, confronting hate groups, and generally looking out for the vulnerable in our communities is evidence of care for and investment in our society. All of that should not be counted out if one doesn’t vote.”
Danielle (who declined to give her last name), of Washington state, voted for Obama in 2008 and Romney in 2012, but did not vote in the 2016 election, either, though she does plan to vote in future elections. “I’m not apathetic but I’d rather be passive and just let someone be elected without me having a hand it. I’d really wish we could go beyond the two-party system.”
She sees herself as something of a unicorn, a moderate who does not vote down party lines, but for the candidate who best reflects her values. “I am pro-life and anti-death penalty. Pro-immigrant and anti-affirmative action. I am pro-universal health care but not opposed to drug-testing welfare recipients,” she explains. She is also a Black woman who did not see her values reflected in either Trump or Clinton, but who did admire Bernie Sanders because “he was the only candidate who felt sincere,” she says.
She feels that both parties “can be extreme in ideology and corrupt in practice.” While she isn’t happy that Trump won, she disagrees that "a 'no vote' is a vote for Trump.’ “No vote is no vote. I have hated the Electoral College since I learned about it as an adolescent, presidential elections should be majority rule. It ensures the fairest outcome.”
How Can Democrats Regain the Advantage?
With all of this frustration and outrage, and a growing divide between Bernie-style progressives and the rest of the Democratic Party, Miles Rapoport, Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at Harvard’s Kennedy School (and a former Democratic state legislator) sympathizes with voter frustration. “I think that lots and lots of barriers are put in their way. Some deliberate, some just the way the system has been set up for a long time that chips away at people’s ability to vote.”
He knows that voters across the board are disgusted with the dominance of big money in the electoral system and GOP gerrymandering and redistricting that favors Republicans.
While Republicans are notoriously good at voter suppression, redistricting, and colluding with foreign governments to influence election outcomes, Democrats have some responsibility, too. Opdycke feels that Democrats have made it difficult for voters to trust them over the years and are often lukewarm on their message.
If Democrats hope to take back the House in 2018 and reclaim the White House in 2020, they need to tap into this newly energized grassroots energy calling itself the resistance that has been hitting the street marching, calling their representatives, and fundraising for progressive institutions since November 8. To succeed, he feels Democrats need to recruit and fund-raise from within it, rather than trying to continue to run the same old-guard candidates. Indeed, some up-and-coming stars include Jon Ossoff, whose recent special election in Georgia’s Republican-held 6th district generated high voter turnout, leading to a June 20th runoff against Republican Karen Handel. Or New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, one of the few senators to vote no on almost all of Trump’s cabinet picks, revealing her to be more progressive than other party darlings like Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker.
Of course, Democrats can be good at organizing, when they put their minds to it. Rapoport credits Obama’s election in 2008 not only with an energized Black base that turned out in larger numbers, but a Democratic push in the months leading up to the election that increased registered voters by going to places historically overlooked: social services offices, including welfare offices, food stamps distribution centers and head start programs. He hopes Democrats will be investing lots of energy into similar initiatives. And organizations like Swing Left and Flippable, which aim to flip districts for Democrats around the country that marginally went to Republicans, are mobilizing in this effort.
Opdycke’s organization is setting its sights on primary reform by helping to increase competition among all parties, particularly in places where the incumbent runs unchallenged by a “token” member of the opposite party. In the new system his organization is working to make happen, you’d get not just two Democrats facing off, but “you get a Democrat and a Green, or a Democrat and a Peace and Freedom member. So you end up with a November election that is actually competitive where the two most popular candidates, they'll have a base and a set of issues that resonate,” Opdycke says.
All of these efforts may be little more than drops in a bucket, however, if there isn’t significant reform against gerrymandering/redistricting. Four states have developed independent commissions to handle redistricting—California, Arizona, Washington and Idaho. And U.S. Representative Alan Lowenthal, a California Democrat, has proposed a bill, “Let the People Draw the Lines Act” that would request the rest of the states do the same. Lowenthal told the Washington Post, "That group would follow set criteria for drawing maps, and would hold public hearings throughout the state. The commission would approve the maps, and would not require legislative or governor's approval. If there was a legal challenge it would immediately go to federal district court."
It has a slim chance of being passed now, but Democrats plan to keep trying.
In Opdycke’s experience, more than half of Americans take their civic duty to vote very seriously, and he believes the post-Trump grassroots energy heralds positive voter turnout for 2018 midterms and 2020 Presidential election. In the meantime, he has a suggestion for Democrats in their approach: “When you reach out to people and say, ‘Hey, this is the time to come together … to change how we do enact policy in this country, to make it more fair or transparent, more inclusive, less partisan, less controlled by special interests, people get behind that.' People want that. Liberals want that. Conservatives want that.”