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OpEdge: Why Didn’t They Vote?

Marc Jampole
November 16, 2014
by Marc Jampole romney-obama-international-observers-election-2012-ohio-620x368WHO ARE THE 63.7 PERCENT of the population who didn’t vote in mid-term elections this year? That’s the highest percentage of people to sit on their hands on election day since 1942, when poll taxes and voting restrictions prevented a significant part of our population — all African-American — from voting throughout the South and in other parts of the country. I want to sort out the nonvoters, not demographically, but by the reasons they didn’t vote. The Internet is full of chatter about why people stayed home, in most cases giving undue weight to the one element that proved whatever point they were trying to make. I haven’t seen a survey, but I’m sure that significant numbers of citizens didn’t vote for the reason I’m about to discuss. Let’s start with the slew of state laws that make it harder to vote because they shorten the voting period, make it harder to register, require more documents to register or require identification to vote. Certainly some part of the difference in the percentage of voters from this election and the mid-term four years ago stems from the fact that it was harder to register and to cast a ballot in many states. Still, in 2010, an enormous 58.2 percent of all eligible voters exercised their right to stay home from the polls. If we take a broad axe to this data, we come up with an explanation of why an extra 5.5 percent of the eligible voters stayed home this time: because new voting laws restrained or kept them from voting, a handsome price to pay, indeed, to try (emphasis on “try”) to prevent a repeat of the less than ten cases of voter fraud that have occurred across the nation over the past thirty years. But what about the other 58.2 percent of the eligible who didn’t vote? Why did they stay home? Here are the standard impediments to voting:
  • Was ill: Some number of voters always miss voting because they happen to be ill that day or have long-term illnesses that affect their ability to make voting decisions.
  • Couldn’t get off work: It’s criminal that all employers of all sizes aren’t required to give citizens three hours to vote on election day. Keep in mind, though, that a goodly number of those who couldn’t get time to vote lost options for early voting because of new laws limiting it.
  • Disillusioned by the system: These people figure that it’s a fixed game and they just don’t want to play. It’s very difficult to argue with the disillusioned, especially given the record of the last thirty-five years in which our elected officials have repeatedly enacted laws and policies that harm 99 percent of the population but help the super-wealthy and large corporations. On the other hand, this year’s referenda favoring higher minimum wages passed in every municipality given the chance to vote on the issue. To a great extent, then, the disillusioned are perpetuating their own chagrin by not voting.
  • Never votes in nonpresidential years: It’s an enormous group. Over the past two presidential elections, an average of 40.1 percent of eligible voters stayed home; during the last two off-years, 60.95 percent of voters stayed home. Using a blunt axe again, that computes to a little over one fifth (20 percent) of all eligible voters who only vote in presidential years.
  • Have never voted: Say what you will about poverty, a lack of education, language barriers and upbringing, the mass media barrages us with so much information about elections, that it’s very hard not to blame those who have never voted — they are hurting themselves, and they are hurting others. Of course, a conservative of the Platonic or Burkean ilk would say that it hurts the body politic when uneducated or unprepared people vote (which for most of recorded history has meant those without property). I can’t agree with their logic. But when I’m wishing for laws that make it easier to vote and media that cover the real issues, I also wish for an electorate that believed more in civic virtues such as voting (plus serving on jury duty and whistle-blowing).
THOSE WHO ARE DISILLUSIONED, only vote for President, or have never voted, don’t realize how much power they could potentially wield. Here’s why: Most elections are extremely close, and that was certainly the case in 2014. In fact, virtually all newspaper reports, opinion pieces and think-tank whitepapers since the beginning of the republic have labeled as a “landslide” every election in which one candidate receives 53 percent of the vote. Of course, the news media and their owners have a vested interest in maintaining overall political stability, which is why the bar is set so low for landslides. For most of the ruling elite, having a stable election that produces a consensus is more important than who actually wins; especially nowadays when candidates of both parties feed so luxuriously at the troughs of big and often shadowy donors. Think of it, though. More eligible voters stayed home this year than the number of voters it would take to declare a landslide in favor of a candidate. It’s a shameful record. Yes, blame the Kochs and other right-wingers for bankrolling those who tell the lies they want the country to believe. Blame the news media for trivializing the election. Blame state legislatures for restrictive voting laws. Blame Obama for suddenly being so unlikeable (a new euphemism for “black”). But let’s not forget to blame non-voters. Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer who runs Jampole Communications, a public relations and communications firm in Pittsburgh. He blogs several times a week at OpEdge.