Today some of us will head to the polls and vote. Most of us won’t. Voter turnout has been declining so stubbornly since the 1960s that barely half the electorate votes in presidential elections, and only 36 percent to 38 percent does in off-year elections such as this one. Actual voters, in essence, are America’s newest, most powerful minority.
All controversies of the 2000 election aside, George W. Bush was put in office by just 25 percent of the electorate. Fewer than 23 percent of Floridians elected Jeb Bush governor in 1998. Fewer than 20 percent regularly put congressmen in office. The numbers frequently drop to the 10 percent range for judges, county commissioners, school board members and city commissioners. This is no longer a representative democracy. It is a vote-owners’ association whose members tend to be richer, older, more educated, more conservative — democracy’s equivalent of a gated community, with most Americans outside the gate.
Convention has it that non-voters have only themselves to blame. “If you don’t vote, don’t complain.” The dictum assumes that voters are more virtuous, more entitled to democracy’s spoils, than non-voters. But voting is neither a virtue nor a responsibility. It is a neutral civil right, like the right to marry, have children, earn a graduate degree. Not voting — like not marrying or not procreating future taxpayers — is a right of equal weight, a choice as defensible as the choice to vote. Both are exercises in freedom. To blame a citizen for not voting is like blaming another for voting for a crook. The blame is sanctimonious either way, suggesting the existence of an ideal voter out there, prescient and unfailing. No such voter exists, but the cult of the voter as superior citizen persists.
When Hollywood wants some gravity in a movie, it injects an English accent. When democracy’s missionaries need to give voting the weight of civic virtue, they inject some Aristotle. In both cases, the injection is more pretentious than accurate. True, in Athenian democracy, citizens were not only entitled to vote but to serve in public office, some of them — judges in particular — chosen randomly. But it was easy for Aristotle to argue that citizenship is possible only through direct political participation. Greek democracy excluded women, slaves, the poor, the landless, the too-recently foreign, the unorthodox (who were exiled or given hemlock, Socrates-style), leaving a little club of white men to play politics.
Judges-by-lot and hemlock aside, America’s version of representative democracy, until recently, was virtually indistinguishable from Greece’s. When, say, the presidential election of 1840 officially drew an 80 percent turnout, actual turnout by today’s more inclusive standards would drop that figure below the dismal turnout of 2000. And 1840 was considered a banner year. So when it comes to voter participation, Aristotle has nothing to teach Americans. The American voting problem is its own to solve.
The Census Bureau analyzed the non-voters of 2000. Twenty-one percent cited a lack of interest in candidates or felt that their vote wouldn’t make a difference. Twenty percent said they were too busy or had conflicting schedules (an argument for making Election Day a holiday). Fifteen percent cited illness, and 11 percent were out of town. Seven percent had registration problems. Seventeen percent cited “other reasons” or refused to say why. The remaining 9 percent cited reasons as varied as the weather, inconvenient polling places, forgetting to vote, or transportation problems. Whatever the case may be, calling it “apathy” distorts the picture and misunderstands the non-voter. When the majority of Americans no longer vote, that majority’s voice speaks louder, in purely democratic terms, than the minority that is voting .
Those who are getting elected are not representative of the majority of Americans. (Do you really believe that Floridians as a whole are as rabidly and stiffly Republican as the Florida Legislature has been lately?) Those who are not voting are the voices that must be understood best if democracy is to work again. Theirs is less a reflection of their apathy than it is a reflection of the choices they are offered. Apathy implies laziness and ignorance. But I find it impossible to call the American citizen lazy when Americans are the most manic workaholics in the world. I find it equally impossible to call that citizenry ignorant when Americans are ridiculously and trivially over-informed. The fact that they choose not to be informed about politicians is itself the message: The politicians are too often the source of apathy. They are the uncompelling, ignorant, vapid, irrelevant variables in the equation, and they’re not variable enough, because they control their own gates.
Membership to that vote-owners’ association is a matter of money, that legal swindle euphemistically called campaign finance. One man, one vote is an ideal at a table rigged for high-rollers. If, as Benjamin Disraeli put it, “there is no gambling like politics,” one grand is ante for the game, one million is a congressman’s eternal friendship, a senator’s returned phone calls, a president’s earlobe for a few minutes. That cool million is also out of 200 million American voters’ league. The wonder is that 100 million Americans still have the heart to vote.
This column was originally written in slightly different form ahead of the 2002 mid-term election.