"The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment."
-- Robert Hutchins, former dean of Yale Law School & former President of the University of Chicago
Being an American is fantastic. We have a nation that allows its citizens more freedoms and opportunities than any other nation in the world. Our nation has had success in every field or discipline this world has to offer and we are leaders in many of those areas -- economic development, business leaders, the arts, athletics, technology, military, etc. Despite much to be pleased about, the United States has several looming problems, many of which I have discussed on this blog. Enough of the flag waving for the moment ...
America touts her rights and freedoms, yet many of the citizens here care only about their rights and not the responsibilities that come with them. One such right also happens to be a responsibility as well -- the right to vote. Free and fair elections are essential to a democracy. American citizens have the awesome power to choose the men and women who lead this nation. However, the citizens here typically choose not to exercise this right on a regular basis.
The most recent example of poor voter turnout was in last weekend's special primary election to fill the open Senate seat left by the late Robert C. Byrd. If you read this and you're not from West Virginia, keep in mind that once a person becomes entrenched in a House or Senate seat in this state, they are not easily unseated. So, with a Senate seat hanging in the balance and the booths open for voting, West Virginians would come out in droves, right? Not even close. According to statistics released this week, the statewide voter turnout was a whopping 12%. I'm not even joking.
Why such a poor showing in the Mountain State? Most everyone in the state presumed Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican John Raese would easily win the primaries, so they didn't bother to vote. This might be a perfect example of self-fulfilling prophecy. Since nearly 9 out of 10 registered voters didn't bother to show up at the polls, their prediction came true. But hey, this phenomenon isn't exclusively a problem in thish state. And with that in mind, let's look at some of the reasons (or excuses) people do not vote (in no particular order).
1. "I'm too busy" -- According a recent study by the California Voter Foundation (CVF), approximately 28% of those surveyed cited this as their reason for not voting. I find this disturbing in the sense that most polling places are open for literally half the day or longer in some instances. This accomodates a large portion of citizens who have a wide variety of work / school schedules. Additionally, this seems like an odd reason considering the availablity of early voting or absentee ballots. Finally, we as humans make time for what matters to us.
2. "I don't like the candidates" -- One of the current problems in politics is the cynical perceptions we have about would-be politicians. Events like Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Bill Clinton's bedroom behavior have soured many folks not only on trusting the government but in casting a vote for any politicians. After all, "they're all crooks," right? Not exactly. The media always spotlights those in power and magnifies the few who do make rather large mistakes.
Moreover, Americans falsely believe our political leaders aren't quite on par with the legends of history. Thomas Jefferson has extramarital affairs. Ben Franklin slept with any woman that had a pulse. Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor? Let's not even go there. Ulysses Grant and Daniel Webster? Poor financial managers. Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears? Ask Native Americans how they feel about that. The point with all these examples? Our politicians are humans, prone to mistakes but still capable of being excellent decision makers despite poor choices at times.
So stop complaining about not liking the candidates. When you choose not to vote, you allow the poor candidates to win elections.
3. "My vote won't make a difference" -- This is by far the most ridiculous assertion put forth by those who don't vote. Looking at West Virginia's recent primary, it's quite evident the 88% of eligible voters could have made a huge difference in the outcome of the election. Looking at the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections should also clear up any notion of individual votes not being important. Back in 2000, this country was approximately 400 votes from having "President Gore." Let that marinate on your brain for a while and tell me voting won't make a difference.
4. "I'm not educated about the issues" -- Educate yourself. Virtually any candidate running for office now has a website and/or blog to let you know where they stand on issues. Maybe you're worried about the candidate exaggerating their position. With the vast amount of information on the Internet, it is quite easy to search several impartial sites and figure out the truth about a candidate. Two such sites: http://www.votesmart.org/ and http://www.factcheck.org/ . Additionally, major candidates for many offices often hold debates to help you determine your vote.
Voter turnout across the nation is putrid. Most presidential elections will barely register over 50% and during mid-term elections, the turnout comes in around 35%. The numbers from the previous four federal (general) elections:
U.S. West Virginia
2002 Mid-Term 39.5% 31.2% (48th in the nation)
2004 Presidential 60.1% 54.1% (tied for 48th in the nation)
2006 Mid-Term 40.4% 32.8% (45th in the nation)
2008 Presidential 61.4% 50.4% (Worst in the nation)
Looking at these numbers drives me insane. I cannot understand how after the past three presidential elections, the voter turnout remains so low. Every vote matters and more importantly, countless thousands of men and women have served, fought, died, and dedicated their lives to creating and preserving a country where all citizens have the right to vote. Americans enjoy their rights, but take them for granted. We have no sense of responsibility anymore or performing our civic duty as American citizens.
West Virginia should be particularly ashamed. But I'm not surprised. Typically, people with the lowest levels of education tend to vote the least. In this state, only 75.2% of citizens have a high school degree (compared to 80.4% nationally). Even more telling is that only 14.8% of West Virginians hold a bachelor's degree (compared to 24.4% nationally).
Low voter turnout might be indictative of the sloth-like behavior of the United States as a whole. We expect someone else will always carry the load for us and it isn't our problem. Guess again.
Bottom line -- no good reason exists for not voting. Hey, if you're in Lincoln County, even dead people still manage to cast a vote. Beat that.