Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Our democracy is threatened by low voter participation

By DeWayne Wickham

ORLANDO — Three days before Election Day, Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson sent out an e-mail urging his supporters to place over 50,000 calls the next day to help him stave off defeat. With polls showing Grayson trailing his Republican opponent in the closing days of the campaign, the first-term Democrat was beating the bushes for votes.

Saying his backers had made 50,000 calls a week earlier, Grayson wrote: “Tomorrow, we’re going to top that.” But the great test for Grayson and Daniel Webster, his Republican challenger, was not how many people their campaign workers talked to, but rather how many of them they could get to actually vote.

In the 2008 presidential election that swept Barack Obama into the White House, just 63 percent of Americans who were eligible to vote cast ballots, according to Curtis Gans, director of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

And get this: 2008 was a good year. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 1960 when a greater percentage of Americans of voting age – 64.8 percent – took part in a presidential election. Voter turnout in midterm elections, Gans told me, is usually a lot lower.

Despite the seismic shift in the political landscape that pundits predicted the midterm election would bring, Gans held out little hope for a corresponding increase in political participation in the world’s greatest democracy. That’s because one in four Americans hasn’t registered to vote, and more than a third of citizens who are eligible to vote have failed to do so in every presidential election since 1920.

When you dissect the numbers, as Gans does with great precision, it’s easy to understand why he worries about the balkanization of America’s body politic. “It suggests that as voter participation declines our politics becomes increasingly the providence of the interested and the zealous,” he said.

Gans worries about the fraying of the bonds that link this nation’s governed to our government. I worry that government will increasingly derive its powers not from “the consent of the governed,” but from the apathy and quiescence of non-voters. I worry that government by the fringe is fast replacing the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” that Abraham Lincoln spoke of so eloquently in his Gettysburg Address.

I fear that as voter participation dwindles, America’s democracy will give way to a government that’s controlled by those who shout the loudest, are the most intimidating or angriest members of society. It’ll become the providence of the winners of an ideological tug-of-war that has little to do with democracy and a lot to do with uncompromising people wanting to have their way.

Sadly, there is no middle ground among American voters. There are just avowed liberals and conservatives and the so-called independents, who waver between these two poles until they pick sides on Election Day.

The outcome of this year’s midterm election, like that of the 2008 presidential contest, will produce short-term gain. But the warring between political parties that follows chips away at the underpinnings of our democracy — an erosion that threatens its collapse.

Greater voter participation can keep our democracy from imploding. It’ll bring more diversity — ideological, racial and cultural — to the voting booth. And it can force the extremes of the left and right to put the good of the nation ahead of their selfish quest for political gain.

No comments: