The November 2016 presidential election evoked a range of emotions among Americans. The results caused rifts among friends and families and co-workers, and revealed a deep, gangrenous wound that had been festering in the American soul for decades. Conversations in the news, on social media and around the watercooler continue to bemoan the deep divides present in our nation. What gets left out of those conversations, however, is the fact that more people chose to not vote than those who did.
According to the U.S. Elections Project, roughly 43 percent of eligible voters stayed home on election day in 2016. During the 2016 primary, only 14 percent of eligible voters exercised their legal voices at the polls. This is the part of the wound that continues to go largely ignored and continues to fester.
America prides itself on being a democracy. So why do so many Americans fail to show up? The answers are numerous. Some simple, some complex. For one, there are those in power who, primarily motivated to keep their power, create legal loopholes in order to keep certain groups of people on the margins and out of the voting process. Federal law mandates that no one 18 years or older can be denied their right to self-governance via the vote. And yet, state laws tack on additional rules and regulations — such as felony disenfranchisement, voter registration limitations, voter roll purges and election and voting schedules — which do just that.
Election days and times often do not reflect the contemporary needs of ordinary citizens, especially those among the working poor. Most people are simply unaware of the (often unnecessarily complicated) ins-and-outs of their particular state’s election laws. Others merely fail to understand the consequences of sitting on the sidelines of our democratic Republic. More often than not, both scenarios suit those in power just fine.
Compared to other industrialized nations, voter turnout in America is pretty paltry. According to the Organization for Economic Development (OECD), in 2016, the United States ranked 26th out of 32 countries. One cause leading to our dismal voter performance, in addition to those mentioned above, might be that U.S. citizens are not automatically registered to vote, as are citizens of other developed countries. During the 2014 mid-term elections, nationwide turnout was the lowest in decades.
Texas, depending on the source, ranked dead last or next to last of all 50 states. That year, Texans had the option of voting for a new governor for the first time in 14 years. And yet the combination of voter apathy and voter suppression kept most people at home.
Secretaries of state have the power to remove citizens from their state’s voter registration rolls, according to Section 8 of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act. Most Southern and some Midwestern states use the Act’s vague definition of “inactive voters” to target groups of people they think most likely to vote them out of power, namely Blacks and Hispanics.
Nearly every state in the U.S. also keeps “undesirable” citizens from voting by disenfranchising prisoners and former felons, either temporarily or permanently, a practice that began during Jim Crow and continues to disproportionately deny people of color and the socioeconomically disadvantaged the right to vote. State lawmakers further target minorities by employing tactics such as gerrymandering and voter I.D. laws. These multilayered manipulations enable those in power to choose their voters, a direct inversion of the way our democratic Republic is supposed to work: an empowered citizenry that chooses its leaders.
Most American citizens are unaware of just how many elections take place in the U.S.: there is at least one nationwide election each year. In Texas, there are two elections every year. During odd-numbered years, Texans vote — or largely do not vote — in two special elections. The first takes place in May, when Texans vote for their city council, mayor and school board members. The second happens in November when Texans actually have the opportunity to add constitutional amendments to the Texas state constitution. During the even-numbered years, Texans can vote in primaries and general elections where they elect their state representatives: members of the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senators and members of the state’s executive and judiciary branches. It’s a lot to keep up with, and it can be confusing. And again, there are those in power who benefit from letting their constituents remain out of the loop.
Over the last several decades, a significant number of high-profile elections have been determined by remarkably slender margins. Those who echo the line that their individual vote doesn’t matter, couldn’t be more wrong. Fortunately, that trend seems to be in decline, and voter turnout on the rise. The 2018 mid-term election saw the highest turnout in decades for a mid-term, especially among voters aged 18 to 29 at present, the largest voting bloc in America; baby boomers no longer represent the largest group of voters. In an article for the Atlantic titled, “Brace for a Voter-Turnout Tsunami,” professor of political science at the University of Florida, Michael McDonald, predicts that a surge of younger voters will turn out for the 2020 elections. A true power shift is possible in this country if younger generations choose to use their voice via the vote.
For additional reading:
Collins, Gail. America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines. New York, Harper- Collins, 2003.
Collins, Gail. When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to Present. New York, Little Brown and Company, 2010.