Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Test Your Civic Imagination ; on Election Day, Will You Vote or Will You Bail?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Test Your Civic Imagination ; on Election Day, Will You Vote or Will You Bail?

Article excerpt

Americans bask in the glow of having created one of the most dynamic and participatory democracies in the world. But the dirty family secret is that over the past few decades, fewer and fewer voters take part in the decision over who leads.

American presidents are now catapulted into office with the positive endorsement of less than 25 percent of the voting age population. Roughly the same amount - 25 percent - vote against the winning candidate.

Meanwhile, 25 percent of Americans over 18 are registered to vote but don't bother to do so. And the remaining quarter of eligible adults aren't even registered to vote.

A few years ago, I conducted a global study of voter participation in national elections since 1945 for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. I found that, with an average turnout of only 48 percent of the voting-age population, America languished at No. 110 out of 134 nations.

The citizens of places as disparate as Albania, Italy, Iceland, Indonesia, and Uzbekistan turn out in almost twice the numbers Americans do.

This isn't necessarily because the issues in those places are more pressing or the races any more exciting. Voting is more than a spectator sport in the rest of the world. When blacks were enfranchised in South Africa and Namibia they turned out in huge numbers with dignity and pride. When anciens regimes fell in Indonesia, Mongolia, Cambodia, and the Seychelles, the people demonstrated their desire to choose by entering the voting booth in record numbers.

Even in the rest of the wealthy West, 7 or 8 out of every 10 adults vote - but the US doesn't even make the top-10 turnout list for North America and the Caribbean.

Some political scientists say low turnout is a sign that all is well - Americans are satisfied with their lot. The cost of taking half an hour to walk down to a local hall to cast a ballot for president once every four years outweighs the marginal benefit of being a tiny part of a big decision.

Such a view demonstrates a sad lack of civic imagination. Voting isn't just about picking the winner - it is a collective and personal responsibility born of the benefits of an organized society. To vote is to be equal, to be virtuous, to speak. Without a substantial voter turnout, any leader's mandate is - or should be - highly dubious.

Whether it's Al Gore or George W. Bush taking up residence in the White House next January, the president - if current trends continue - will be put there by only a quarter of the people. Wouldn't it be much more convincing - indeed, even comforting - if he was carried into office by over half the voting-age citizens?

The view that nonvoting is a gauge of satisfaction also contradicts the fact that nonvoters are disproportionately the young, the poor, and the socially marginalized. For many, abstention is a subconscious expression of alienation - a whisper to the politicians that "you are not like us, you do not understand us, and we, for whatever reason, are unwilling to speak to you."

Of course, low turnout in national elections cannot be blamed entirely on the alienated and marginalized. The comparative evidence shows a number of factors combine to affect turnout rates; understanding these structural effects is the first step to knowing how to increase voter participation.

The first hurdle on the way to the ballot box is registration. …

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