Tuesday, November 5--less than a month from this writing--is Election Day. Will you be voting? Be honest: Did you even know there is an election this year?
The question is not meant to be rhetorical or even judgmental. The fact is a majority of eligible voters will not bother to vote in their town or city's municipal election this year. The few who do vote (the so-called "super voters" who reliably vote in every election) will do so with little prior knowledge of the candidates, the positions they are running for, or the bond or referendum questions on the ballot.
Yet, we insist on priding ourselves as citizens of the "world's greatest democracy."
Odd-year and biennial midterm elections produce notoriously low voter turnout. For example, about 41 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the 2010 midterm elections. While this number is on par with recent statistical voting trends, at under fifty percent it is hardly evidence of a healthy democracy. Contrast this with voter turnout in Canada which is regularly between 70-75 percent. In other industrialized countries, turnout is well over 80 percent. (In countries like Australia voting is mandatory, a policy I am not entirely opposed to.)
Indeed, 2010's piss-poor voter turnout--what political analysts term the "enthusiasm gap"--allowed the right-wing Tea Party to take control of the House of Representatives. Here in Maine, it led to the election of Gov. Paul LePage, and a temporary Republican takeover of the state legislature. As I write this, the federal government is currently shutdown thanks to these right-wing zealots. So do not tell me voting does not matter.
Turnout was slightly better in last year's presidential election, which was close to 58 percent according to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. Still, this means some 93 million eligible voters did not cast ballots. And many of those same voters who stood in line for hours--many voting for the first time in their lives--will not bother this year, largely because it is not a presidential race.
And, contrary to popular opinion, voter apathy is not limited to young people. Last year while working on my friend Asher Platt's campaign, I talked to several Baby Boomer-aged individuals who told me flat-out, "I don't vote." One elderly woman told me she had never cast a vote in her life.
Sorry America, but it needs to be said: This is fucking pathetic.
Given the myriad forms of civic engagement one could undertake, voting is hands-down the absolute easiest. It is the most entry-level form of citizen involvement. For most Americans, it is their only form of involvement. If we cannot be bothered to exercise our right to vote, we may as well proclaim the Founding Fathers' experiment in democracy a failure, pack it up and go back to Britain. Nothing more to see here, folks. Show's over.
Americans, it seems, have simply become so fed up with politics in general, they have collectively thrown up their hands in disgust. They have decided politics--both at the national and local level--is too corrupt, nasty and mean-spirited to deserve our time. And while one cannot really blame the average citizen for arriving at this conclusion, this cynical attitude is not a solution to the problem. It is a surrender.
Furthermore, this disgusted indifference is exactly the sort of attitude many in Washington want us to have toward elections and politics. The fewer informed, knowledgeable citizens who show up to vote on Election Day, the better, as far as they are concerned. How else to explain how deranged congressional representatives like John Boehner, Ted Cruz and LePage are elected (and re-elected) in the first place?
Apathy is not a solution. Fed up with your local government? Run for office yourself. My friends and Green Party colleagues, David Marshall and Kevin Donoghue did just that. They are now serving their third terms on the Portland City Council. On Nov. 5, Portlanders will have the opportunity to legalize marijuana in the city, largely thanks to Marshall and the Portland Green Independent Party's efforts.
If anything, this year's municipal election--in which Portland voters will fill two at-large City Council seats, and two positions on the School Board--is actually more important than last year's presidential race. Yes, you read correctly: More important. Why, you ask? Because these are the municipal offices that exert the most influence and authority over our neighborhoods, community and daily lives.
Furthermore, the members of your local school board and town council are residents you can actually meet with. They might even be your neighbor. This means you have far greater access to them than you do the president or even members of Congress. You can potentially influence them on local issues or laws that are important to you. When President Obama visited Maine last year, it cost $10,000 just to dine in the same room as him. I can visit State Rep. Ben Chipman for free.
All of that being said, should we regard voting as the "be-all-end-all"? Absolutely not. As citizens we need to get in the habit of being civically-minded all year round--not just during elections. We also need more parties so voters can actually have choices in the voting booth. And yes, campaign finance reform, both at the national and local levels, is an urgently needed remedy to our calcified, two-party duopoly.
But even if all of these reforms were enacted, none of them would make a difference if "We the People" cannot be bothered to vote.
Conservatives who proudly proclaim that, "Freedom isn't free," are half right. While I dispute the sentiment's implication that continued freedom necessitates constant military "defense" throughout the globe, I do agree that maintaining democracy requires some sustained effort on our part. I think Howard Zinn put it better: "Democracy is not what governments do," he once said, "it's what people do."
I intend, Dear Reader, to up bright and early on Tuesday, Nov. 5 to cast my ballot. I expect to see you there.
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