This is the second of three opinion pieces Thal is writing on voting in DC and in our country. Here’s the first. (Thal’s views are his own and do not represent those of the DC Board of Elections.)
by Jay Thal
Without question, the ratification of our Constitution in 1787 set a standard for other nation states yet to be born. Not since the Greeks were people empowered to select some of their leaders and representatives. We called it a representative democracy.
It was a revolutionary concept. Some of us have been fortunate enough to have seen elections occurring in other countries. Others have sat back in amazement while watching TV news as people elsewhere, in the midst of civil strife, line up to vote.
Voting was a hard-fought right for many Americans as well. Yet what makes voting in the U.S. so exceptional is the low percentage of citizens who currently bother to cast a ballot.
In the early days of our republic (1789-1826) voter participation was quite low. In fact, midterm turnout always exceeded presidential elections. Perhaps local government was viewed as more immediate to people’s needs. Then, for a brief period (1828-1838) the turnout was in relative balance – in the 55% range.
Since the 1840 election year, presidential election turnout has always exceeded midterm elections. Amazingly, that same year, 80% of the electorate voted. That was close to the norm through 1896.
From the beginning of the 20th century and now in the 21st, presidential turnout has never exceeded 65.7%. Fifteen of 25 elections have seen turnout in the 50% range – just like 180 years ago.
And in the 44 years since 1972, no midterm election has had voter turnout exceeding 42% of the electorate. Turnout at seven of those 11 elections was below 40%.
Excluding the small islands in the Caribbean and Cuba, the 23 nation states in the Americas have free, fair and regular elections today. Only Guatemala appears to have lower national voter participation than the United States. Is that exceptionalism?
It is not just in the Americas. Of the 35 developed counties of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) only three – Japan, Chile, and Switzerland – have lower voter participation rates than the U.S.
Those sorry statistics generally reflect upon national (presidential) election years. Much lower, yet, is participation in off-year (or primary, local and special elections) where decisions have direct affect upon daily lives – water quality, potholes or your child’s education.
Three states – Oregon, Washington, Colorado – have attempted to increase voter participation by providing every registered voter with a mail-in ballot. However, this does not include residents of voting age, but not registered to vote. It saves those states administrative costs but in 2014 many apathetic voters didn’t bother to return their ballots by mail. The voting rates for each state were 50%, 47%, and 47% respectively.
Perhaps coupling mail-in ballots with mandatory participation and fines for failure-to-perform is needed. Several of the 17 American countries which currently have compulsory voting impose penalties, though some are lax with enforcement:
Some European countries such as Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece and Italy also use fines and other penalties for not voting. Some are harsh, such as loss of college scholarship and expulsion or not being able to get a new passport or driver’s license.
Until the District makes voting compulsory with fines, perhaps we should consider “incentivizing” voter through a lottery for just “showing up” – yes, another “crazy idea.” For $50,050 per citywide election, the DC Board of Elections could offer $350 in randomly selected prizes at each of the 143 precincts for merely casting a ballot.
For the 2014 midterm elections, turnout was the lowest in 72 years. The national turnout was 36.3%. DC’s rate was 30.3%. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot: This is the way representative democracy ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.