How You Can Help Fix Our Half Democracy
1a. government by the people, especially: rule of the majority.
1b. a government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation involving periodic free elections.
The United States is no longer a democracy: you've heard that claim. Usually the people making it are referring to corporate control of our political system, or perhaps the erosion of our rights. But in a very literal sense, American democracy is in trouble: barely half of us, if that, vote.
There are various measures of turnout, but all tell the same story: the world's most celebrated democracy is among the worst in this category. For example, "only 44.9 percent of American eligible to vote during the nineties did so." Only 23 of the 163 democracies had worse turnout. Among wealthy nations, the United States is at the very bottom.
This problem would be bad for our democracy even if the voters were a representative sample. But as economic inequality grows and poverty becomes more geographically concentrated, poor Americans are increasingly less likely to vote than wealthy ones.
It's tempting to see this as a partisan issue, because only one party—the one that rhymes with Schmuglican—wants fewer people to vote and actively tries to stop "the wrong kind" from showing up at the polls. But the problems responsible for low turnout are bipartisan, like domination by Big Money and Wall Street, corruption, the chasm between the political establishment's professed agenda and its actual one.
We have a vicious cycle where these problems deter people, especially the poor, from voting, and the low turnout helps exacerbate the problems.
As poor people in poor neighborhoods vote less, politicians become even less responsive to them, paying attention instead to the concerns of their wealthier constituencies, who vote more reliably and attend fundraisers. The better-off get money for schools and other institutions to help them develop civic skills. The worse-off just get more cause for cynicism.
The question is whether we can take steps to address the turnout crisis without fixing its fundamental causes. The answer is...Yes!
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne