Presidents and politicos have, since the inception of this country, spoken to the need for an educated electorate. In this day and age — with social media misinformation, politically oriented news media, some heavily funded by interest groups, corporate sponsors and wealthy benefactors — educating the electorate is a much more complicated task. And yet looking at the statistics over the past several decades, it would seem that what we first need is an electorate that shows an interest in voting.
An estimated 113 million people participated in the 2018 midterm elections, making this the first midterm in history to exceed over 100 million votes, but that turnout only represented 49% of eligible voters.
Not quite 56% of the U.S. voting-age population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election, representing a slight uptick compared with 2012 but less than in the record year of 2008.
The Census Bureau estimated that there were 245.5 million Americans ages 18 and older in November 2016, about 157.6 million of whom reported being registered to vote. (While political scientists typically define turnout as votes cast divided by the number of eligible voters, in practice turnout calculations usually are based on the estimated voting-age population, or VAP.) Just over 137.5 million people told the census they voted in 2016, somewhat higher than the actual number of votes tallied – nearly 136.8 million, according to figures compiled by the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. The 55.7% VAP turnout in 2016 puts the U.S. behind most of its peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), most of whose members are highly developed, democratic states. Looking at the most recent nationwide election in each OECD nation, the U.S. placed 26th out of 32 (current VAP estimates weren’t available for three countries).
Since 1976, voting-age turnout has remained within an 8.5-percentage-point range — from just under 50% in 1996, when Bill Clinton was re-elected, to just over 58% in 2008, when Barack Obama won the White House.
The bottom line is many in our country have so little interest in those governing our nation, making decisions that dramatically affect our lives, that they don’t take the time to register and vote.
The other problem is that many voters vote based on family, community or regionally established traditions. There is also a growing segment of the voting public that is so ideologically centered that they simply vote party line without taking a serious look at the issues or candidates.
Issue voting used to correlate with party affiliation and to a certain extend still does except that many issue voters and party affiliated voters actually vote for candidates who do not represent their positions. For example, the majority of Republicans favor gun registration laws, Social Security and Medicare, but the candidates they vote for do not. The majority of Republicans believe in global warming and climate change and that humans are the or a primary cause, but their candidates do not. Apparently the pull of ideology trumps issues or candidate qualification determinations.
Misinformation supplied by social media, which is ripe for interference from foreign players and extremist conspiracy theorists, and a news media that becomes more biased and ideologically oriented each year, makes it increasingly difficult for a responsible voter to make sense of what they see and hear and to make a reasoned and rational choice.
Democracy is in a transitional phase right now, and what occurs in the 2020 election may decide for some time how well our democracy functions, if it functions at all. Our founding fathers were correct to emphasize the importance of an educated electorate, but first we need an electorate that cares.
To those who just haven’t had the time to register or vote, those who haven’t had the time to acquaint themselves with the issues and candidates, you need to rethink your priorities; you need to get interested in our institutions, our government, our policies and those we put in place to represent us or we may find our democracy isn’t as democratic as we believed.
Kenneth Buck (email@example.com) is a retired federal law enforcement officer.