Turnout reflects distrust

With the colorful array of political signs currently making a kaleidoscope of the Northfield landscape, apathy is the last word one would use to describe this year’s voting body. During the frenzy of election season, we’re so bombarded with commercials, phone calls, debates and miscellaneous political propaganda that it’s easy to assume everyone is chomping at the bit to vote come the first Tuesday in November. But the truth is, only half of them will.

Low voter turnout is a real – and frankly disturbing – problem. And it’s not just a phenomenon of recent years, either: Turnout was 55.2 percent in 1972, a presidential election year, compared to 56.8 percent in 2008. This means that almost one half of the voting-age population consistently hasn’t bothered to cast their vote over the last thirty years. Even as the U.S. has spiraled into economic decline, become entangled in foreign wars and faced the biggest environmental problems in recent memory, the number of voters has held at a relatively steady 50-odd percent. It’s not the economy; it’s the culture.

People neglect to vote because they’ve convinced themselves that they have no choice, a sentiment that has developed as a byproduct of American politics. The divisive two-party system has alienated voters by presenting them with only two viable candidates. Furthermore, the candidates themselves appear to be mere figureheads of corrupt partisan machinery. At its worst, the political process is seen as a carefully-orchestrated farce: The debates are canned and the conventions are staged – an elaborate celebratory ceremony to crown the candidate who was chosen from the get-go.

The perceived purposelessness of the democratic process has produced a culture in which the voting body feels collectively ineffectual. It’s not just indifference to their individual vote; it’s indifference to the collective vote. In abstaining from the political process, people are implicitly affirming their loss of faith in politics to produce tangible change.

This may all be true, but too much ink has been spilled trying to explain the phenomenon of low voter turnout. People have even begun to probe biology in search of explanations, attributing low turnout to a hormone-induced fear of choosing the losing candidate, according to a recent article in The New York Times. Instead of all this silly speculating, we’d be better to focus on a solution.

Solutions often turn on eliminating barriers to voting. But new voter registration procedures probably won’t compel the 40-odd percent who haven’t voted for years to take political action. It will require not just new registration laws, but a paradigm shift. People don’t care how easy the process is if they feel powerless to change anything. What needs to change is politics itself; only this can produce a corresponding cultural shift that will boost voting numbers.

This political season in particular is fraught with percentages: Mitt’s 47 percent, Occupy’s 99 percent, Wall Street’s 1 percent. But the most important figure might also be the most overlooked: the roughly 44 percent who won’t be casting their ballot this November. This untapped body has the power to turn the election in a drastically different direction. We can throw around various explanations for low voter turnout, but it’s time to face the facts: it’s built into our culture, a product of waning faith in the newfangled brand of American politics.

In post-Watergate America, it’s on the politicians to prove to their electorate that they should reclaim faith in the political system. Only then will people seriously take heed of those political signs, step up to the ballot box and vote.

Ellen Squires ’14 squirese@stolaf.edu is from Andover, Minn. She majors in biology and environmental studies.