Michael Engel: It will take a movement to move today’s non-voters
EASTHAMPTON — On Election Day, the news media inundated us with stories about long lines of voters, delays at the polls due to the crowds and masses of people cheering their candidates’ final rallies. The impression was left that we are a nation of dedicated partisans and enthusiastic voters. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it is estimated that total turnout may have been lower than in 2008.
This is no new phenomenon. Patriotic Americans are fond of chanting “We’re No. 1!” and in some respects, we may deserve that ranking. But in terms of voter participation, we were number 138 out of 169 nations, according to voter turnout since 1945, as reported by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in 2002. The U.S. ranks between Armenia and Nigeria, and only slightly above Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Mauritania when compared to other nations’ voters to voting age population ratios. Most western European nations rank in the top 40.
There are some 230 million Americans of voting age. Of those, about one-third are not registered to vote — in other words, 75 million Americans have disenfranchised themselves. Out of the remaining 155 million, it is estimated based on current popular vote totals that 25 million — and probably more — did not vote in 2012.
The victorious party in the recent election was therefore neither the Democrats nor the Republicans — it was the 100-million-member Party of Nonvoters.
It is perhaps not surprising that the mass media pays no attention to this group and instead focuses on active voters. Noam Chomsky and others argue that the primary function of mainstream media, whether liberal, conservative or somewhere in between, is to act as cheerleader and propagandist for the existing political and economic system, and to distract citizens from thinking too critically by replacing hard news with “infotainment.”
If we were simply talking about 100 million Americans too stupid, lazy or apathetic to participate, we could bemoan their irresponsibility and console ourselves with the idea that the system is better off without them. Indeed, some political scientists have taken that position. But a look at the demographics of nonvoters calls that conclusion into question: Non-voters tend to be young, lower-income, unemployed, less-educated and Hispanic.
Off-year elections, such as the one in 2010, have even lower turnouts — generally around 40 percent of eligible voters — than presidential elections. A young high school dropout with a marginal job is highly unlikely to vote, Census figures show.
There is a considerable historical irony here. From the early 19th century until the 1970s, working people, women, African-Americans and youth have struggled to gain the right to vote, and succeeded. In recent decades, registration has been made easier and early voting now provides extra time to go to the polls. Nonetheless, the percentage of those eligible who actually vote has remained substantially the same.
It is also ironic that the single-minded emphasis among progressives on leveling the electoral playing field with spending limitations and public financing of campaigns ignores the far more uneven terrain created by the withdrawal of 100 million younger, poorer and less-educated citizens from active participation in the political arena.
So why is this happening? The Census Bureau asked nonvoters in 2010 the reasons for their abstention, and they offered various answers, including being too busy (27 percent), not interested (16 percent) and sick (11 percent).
Political scientists who study the phenomenon similarly offer a variety of explanations. Conservatives may argue that the success of the 1 percent reflects higher ability and effort, and those in the 47 percent don’t show much of either — thus the differential in voter participation. In contrast, I would argue that there is an inherent class bias in the American political system that provides no direct and immediate incentive for the young, the poor and the less educated to turn out at the polls.
The Republican Party has never addressed itself to the lower classes and Democrats have steadily abandoned their working class roots over the last 50 years. Neither party has any reason to expand the electorate, and doing so would only alienate their wealthy supporters. It is far more effective for their purposes to spend billions on propaganda aimed at that tiny sliver of the electorate known as swing voters.
Only a mass movement can change this situation, as has been the case in the past. Given the increasing public attention in America to the issue of economic inequality, one can hope that such a movement might be on the agenda of the future.
Michael Engel is a professor emeritus of political science at Westfield State University, a former Easthampton selectman and School Committee member and independent candidate for U.S. House of Representatives in 2010.