Next month the United States will hold one of its quadrennial presidential elections, whose stakes have become unusually high. But the ballot in Illinois contains a multitude of choices for voters, including your representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, one of Illinois’ two U.S. Senators, as well as municipal offices, judicial elections, and amendments to the Illinois state constitution. Yet it is likely that more than half of the state’s youngest voters — those aged 18-29 — will sit this election out.
Why is this the case? The United States operates one of the world’s oldest and most robust democracies, and its citizens generally express considerable pride in our system of government. Yet millions of our fellow citizens are completely checked out of the electoral process. Tens of millions of adult citizens aren’t even registered to vote, meaning in many locales they couldn’t participate on Election Day even if they wanted to. The United States is a democratic outlier in so many ways. We are the only country in the world that elects an entire legislative body (the House of Representatives) every two years. Our campaign finance laws — which allow unlimited spending by corporate actors — are justifiably abhorred. But our voting laws are also unique — and mostly not in good ways. While the U.S. has world-renowned procedures for ensuring the integrity of elections, we also do more than perhaps any other democracy to discourage voting.
The first and most obvious is that we hold our elections on Tuesdays in November, making it difficult for those who work long hours — disproportionately marginalized communities — to take the time to vote. Many democracies hold their elections on the weekend, or better yet, declare a national holiday. Early November is also a time that invites mischief from the weather in more northerly parts of the country, and bad weather consistently reduces turnout. (Don’t even get me started on Chicago holding its mayoral elections in February). Some countries also automatically register their citizens to vote. Many U.S. provinces like North Carolina have also imposed onerous photo-ID requirements on voters, which deliberately target the poor and people of color in an effort to prevent them from voting. The U.S. is truly unique in that one of its two major political parties engages in a systematic effort to reduce voter turnout.
November is also a time that invites mischief from the weather in more northerly parts of the country, and bad weather consistently reduces turnout. (Don’t even get me started on Chicago holding its mayoral elections in February).
Political scientists also believe that the U.S. electoral system — the rules we use to determine winners and losers in each race — discourage turnout. For its congressional races, the U.S. uses a system called “Single Member District Plurality.” We run 435 separate races for Congress, and in each district there is one winner — whoever has the most votes. Wherever this system is used, including in the United Kingdom, it has tended to reduce the number of major political parties. It does so by making it very difficult for third or fourth parties to gain any representation at all.
Imagine a party — let’s call them the Greens for the sake of argument — that finishes in third place in every congressional district in the country with 22% of the vote. Under our system, the Greens get zero seats in Congress. In many countries that use versions of “Proportional Representation,” parties are awarded seats based roughly on the percentage of the vote that they achieve. In those systems, second and third-place winners still get representation rather than a concession speech and a bus ticket home, and this seems to encourage more people to participate in the process.
The cumulative effect of these anti-democratic policies is that the U.S. has one of the world’s lowest voter turnout rates. Barely half of the voting-age population bothered to cast a ballot in 2012. Turnout is particularly dreadful among America’s youngest voters. Fewer than 20% of voters aged 18-29 mustered the will to turn out in the 2014 Congressional elections that increased the GOP’s House majority and handed the Senate to the Republicans. Overall, 2014 featured the lowest voter turnout rate in 72 years, triggering a discussion of what can be done to increase participation.
In fact, 25 countries around the world, including Belgium and Australia, feature ‘compulsory voting,’ meaning that the state will impose a (mostly nominal) fine on citizens who don’t vote. Unsurprisingly, such countries have much higher rates of voter participation than we do. While such policies are unlikely to be received well in the United States, increasing access to the ballot and boosting turnout will be one of the critical challenges facing the next generation of policymakers in the U.S.
Fewer than 20% of voters aged 18-29 mustered the will to turn out in the 2014 Congressional elections that increased the GOP’s House majority and handed the Senate to the Republicans.
When you choose not to vote in democratic elections you are saying that, in the words of Clay Shirky, “I defer to the judgment of my fellow citizens.” This is particularly true of young people, who will have to spend the most time dealing with the decisions of policymakers elected by other people. America’s oldest voters turn out in legions. And don’t get me wrong — that’s fantastic. But elections have consequences, and sitting them out means that you are allowing other people to make important long-term decisions for you. You need look no further than Illinois for this lesson, where low voter turnout in 2014 resulted in a narrow loss for Democratic Governor Pat Quinn. Since then, Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and the Democratic legislature have been unable to do something as simple as pass a budget, and higher education as well as a host of other critical services for our citizens have suffered accordingly. Just 40% of Illinoisans turned out for that election.
Whatever happens next month, you’ll want to be able to say that you did your part. Early voting is already open. Trust me I know — I voted two weeks ago, meaning I can spend Election Day doing work for the candidates I support. And when the returns start rolling in, I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that I played my part in our sprawling, messy, frustrating and vital democracy. I hope you’ll join me.