Throughout the beginning of my school year, the issue of voter-turnout kept propping up in my studies—first, by way of my September-October topic for Lincoln Douglas Debate, phrased, “in a just democracy, voting ought to be compulsory,” and later, in our own studies in AP US Government. Much to my embarrassment, I had never been very aware of voter-turnout in the United States, except for the ever-present fact that turnout is alarmingly low and continually declining. Yet, what I didn’t know, and have reflected on in the past few months, is why citizens in the United States have not made it to the polls, and more importantly, how this directly effects the society our generation will inherit.
Many would believe that abstention is a direct representation of ones’ apathy or political disinterest. However, while this may reflect the rationale of some Americans’ choices, the vast majority of abstention boils down to two important factors: abstention as a means of protest, and limited access to voting. Although it would appear as if in a democracy, voting would be of great importance and widely available to all citizens of age, polling places are often found in clusters or in certain districts, and often far away from many lower-income neighborhoods. More disturbing is a report by CNN which states that “In the 2008 [United States] presidential election, 80% of adults from families earning at least $100,000 a year voted, while only 52% of adults from families earning $20,000 or less cast a vote, according to data from the Census Bureau. Married homeowners with college degrees are also far more likely to vote than single renters with high school diplomas. Older people are often more politically involved, while younger voters — who tend to skew lower in income — may not feel as tied to a community, and vote less frequently.1” One may ask why those of less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds may not cast a ballot. Some argue that this is out of a lack of quality civic education in school or a sense of inadequacy as a voter, and while these claims are certainly justified by many studies, a more likely reason is simply one of economic necessity. The United States, unlike many other democracies, has yet to implement a “voting holiday,” or national day-off to get to the polls and cast a ballot. While this concept may seem frivolous, the reality is that those most disadvantaged may not have access to transportation in order to easily access a polling place, or may not be able to get off of work in order to vote.
Additionally, as party-politics become increasingly polarized, some Americans may not feel that government officials and policy makers do not reflect their views. Similarly, in early October of 2013, MSNBC3 reported that over half of Americans—51%, consider themselves as moderates. Because of gridlock, or simply, disagreement with both candidates on the ballot, voters may choose to abstain a means of protest.
Ultimately, raising turnout is much less simple than many campaigns geared at young voters, such as the “Rock the Vote” project, would insinuate. Raising turnout poses to be a formidable challenge, as it not only demands changes in our political system—for example, the establishment of voting holidays, but perhaps also a change in political ideology. When our last presidential election’s results were determined by a turnout of only 58.7%5, our government should be left questioning more than just using ads or campaigns to get voters ‘motivated’, but instead, be reminded of the importance of doing whatever is necessary to ensure the continuation of our nation’s status as a democratic republic. As Professor Iris Young argued in Inclusion and Democracy, complete knowledge is gained not through the meticulous selection of opinions, but rather, from the access to experience, and the maximization of all narratives. Thus, gaining access to all of its citizen’s views is integral to our governments’ overall success, and moreso, to its legitimacy. Personally, I cannot wait until this upcoming August 24th, also known as “the day when I can officially call myself ‘voting age’,” but in order for turnout to be increased and sustained, attention should be shifted from simply encouraging youth as individuals, and rather removing barriers already present in our voting system.