It was an historic primary season for Oklahoma, with record high turnout numbers for both major political parties. According to the Oklahoma State Election Board, 39.5 percent of registered voters showed up to the polls on Super Tuesday and the raw total of ballots cast shattered the previous mark that had been set in the 2008 election. Following a 2012 election that saw Oklahoma post the seventh-worst voter participation rate in the nation, it appears that things are trending in the right direction, but how far the state can still go towards having an engaged electorate should not be lost in the good news.
When the figures are expanded to include all those people who are eligible to register to vote, Oklahoma’s turnout in the primary was just 28.6 percent. That’s still not entirely terrible compared to the other 49 states (the highest of which was New Hampshire at 52 percent and the lowest Louisiana at 18.2 percent) but that itself really emphasizes the overarching point: election turnout, even in highly publicized national races like this one, is never as high as it should be in a nation that prides itself on the vote.
This is no new phenomenon — it seems like there is some reiteration of the same debate come every November. And yet we don’t seem to be any closer to a solution, though our annual exposure has certainly given us a pretty good idea of why so many people choose to stay home. Ultimately, the problem seems to boil down to there being a large segment of the population that just doesn’t want to put in the effort of driving to the polls and casting their vote, and any measure taken to increase voter turnout has to deal with the fundamental task of motivating and enabling these people to take part in the democratic process.
What makes this so difficult, however, is that not all of them have the same rationale behind their unwillingness; indeed, many don’t even have a choice in the matter. For example, many in the impoverished and working classes find themselves physically unable to get to where they need to be, either not able to get off work for the day or lacking viable transportation. An obvious remedy for this would seem to be to make election day a federal holiday or at least to introduce some legislation permitting private sector workers to miss work while fulfilling their civic duty to vote (similar to jury duty), which would hopefully eliminate any fears people might have about losing money or their jobs. Bills which would institute a federal holiday on election day have been introduced in Congress a couple times in recent years, by Democratic Representative John Conyers of Michigan in 2005 and by Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in 2014, but neither passed. If legislators are serious about boosting voter turnout, they might look into reopening the discussion.
Presenting a far more troubling and complicated dilemma, however, is the other segment of the population that refuses to vote: those who have the means to do so but find themselves disenfranchised with the country’s political process, not identifying with any of the candidates or believing that their individual vote will not matter. Providing easier access to the polls wouldn’t make any difference to these people, as they are actively choosing to spend their time elsewhere on election day.
What makes addressing these people’s concerns so much more challenging is that it is truly difficult to rebut most of their main arguments. For those who don’t want to vote because they don’t like everything about a particular candidate, reminding them of the virtues of compromise only goes so far; after all, so many believe in a broken system and the equal ineptitude of all candidates and are perfectly at peace with executing their right to not participate in the electoral process at all. And for those who say their vote doesn’t matter…in many places, isn’t that really true? In our winner-take-all system, a vote for the minority party in a state that is solidly one color (think Oklahoma or Utah for Republicans and New York or Massachusetts for Democrats) essentially amounts to nothing. It appears in the popular vote tally at the end of the year, but does it actually contribute towards electing the person who you voted for? No. We won’t even get into the electoral college here, the members of which have the power to vote against the interests of their constituents without facing any legal repercussions, but it’s another highly visible reminder to cynics that their voice is insignificant.
Another interesting element that is unique to voter disenfranchisement at the state level is a lack of relevant information. When NPR did an investigation into why Oklahoma’s voter turnout was so low in the 2012 election, they found that one of the biggest problems among prospective voters was that they had no idea who was running for anything. In the NPR piece, Jeanette Mendez, the head of political science at Oklahoma State University, says that “even local media attention…is fixated on the presidential election as if that’s the only election going on” and she’s absolutely right. We’ve heard about emails and walls and “locker room talk” ad infinitum, but how much would any readers be able to tell me about the policies of their candidates for city council positions? I’d imagine that most of that information is out there if voters would be willing to look hard enough, but it’s a huge flaw in the system if election day turns into a full-blown research project, the time for which many people simply don’t have.
I wish there was a switch we could flip to address these voter concerns; in an instant get rid of the electoral college, implement a popular-vote-wins system, guarantee that every candidate on the ballot, down to the smallest local positions, has enough relevant coverage to inform the public of their viewpoints, and be left with a huge politically active and informed voter block. Of course, I also wish that people would stop being so violent, that Kevin Durant and the Warriors would miss the playoffs, and that McDonald’s would serve the McRib year round. Point being, wishful thinking doesn’t do much good when it concerns things that don’t have much possibility of coming to fruition. In reality, we are probably going to have to put up with low voter turnout for the near future. So given that, let me offer a slightly different perspective: maybe that low participation rate isn’t such a bad thing?
Most people would agree that the healthiest democracy is one that has a large population of intelligent and well-informed voters, as this is the most effective way of ensuring that the best ideas make their way to the forefront. Short of that, however, it is probably best for the health of the state if the uninformed keep their contributions to a minimum. After all, if you don’t know what you are talking about, is it really such a bad thing if you are not voting, choosing to leave the governing decisions to those who are in a better position to make them? This is not to suggest that there should be some sort of test or intellectual qualification needed for the right to vote, as I can only imagine such a thing becoming subjective and politicized, but I certainly don’t lose respect for people just because they choose not to partake in an election. If anything, I think I would gain respect for a person who could honestly look at themselves and say that they were not informed enough to vote. As I said before, voting is a right, not an obligation, and that right includes the choice to abstain. Look at things from this perspective and suddenly that 28.6 percent doesn’t seem so bad.