It’s your right to vote. So why does our society seem not to want you to use it?
Two-thirds of eligible voters did not vote in this year’s midterm elections. It was the lowest electoral turnout since World War II—a time when most black people couldn’t even vote because of Jim Crow laws and because a large portion of voting-age males were overseas trying not to get blown up. This year a paltry 36.4 percent of all potential voters gave the Republicans the Senate and decided what our politics would look like until the next election cycle in 2016.
How can we call ourselves a representative democracy when our democracy is chosen by only 36 percent of its people? And how can anyone be OK with this in a “shrug your shoulders, can’t fight city hall” kind of way?
What would fix this apathy is if people were guaranteed that their vote would count. What if we could remove the biggest barrier to voting, a barrier so huge we don’t even see it?
Why do citizens have to register to vote?
How can we call ourselves a representative democracy when our democracy is chosen by only 36 percent of its people?
They don’t register to vote in France or Sweden. Both countries have higher voter-turnout rates than our own, at 71.2 percent and 82.6 percent respectively. In France, every citizen becomes a voter automatically once he or she turns 18. Sweden and other Scandinavian countries just use your tax records to register you automatically.
If we seriously want to see voter turnout in the United States look as good as voter turnout in places like Brazil (80.6 percent turnout), Australia (81 percent) and Greece (69.4 percent), we have to change our entire mentality about voting in America. In Brazil and Australia, for example, voting is compulsory—it’s the law. You have to vote or face fines. Although I wouldn’t recommend going that far, considering our country’s history with “fines” and the prison-industrial complex, there is something America can do to ensure that more people vote.
Voting in our country should be a right, should be the law and should be protected.
But it’s not.
There is no constitutionally protected right to vote in this country. Although voting—like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms, the right to assembly and freedom of the press—is mentioned in the Constitution, it is not guaranteed the same protections under the law. Our courts have long seen voting as a privilege, one that could be upended by literacy tests and voter-ID laws. This is why voting always seems to be changing and morphing, constantly under assault no matter the decade.
So you can roll out the Get Out the Vote campaigns, but the United States has always been about some of the people voting, not all. From the country’s founding, voting was for white male landowners and very gradually, over time, opened up to include nonland owners, women, freed slaves and minority groups.
But even with the expansion of voting rights, things have purposely been made difficult in order to depress turnout. Like having our elections held on a Tuesday, not on the weekends. (The Constitution does not say we have to hold elections on Tuesdays, when many of us are stuck in offices and behind desks.) Or how voting largely takes place on only one day in the U.S. There is no legal reason that voting couldn’t take place over a week or more, as is done in states with early voting—which, by the way, is also under siege—giving more people more chances to vote. No reason, that is, other than that your vote isn’t really wanted.
The vast majority of democracies do not require the extra step of voter registration. Even the United States initially didn’t do it. Like everything that keeps you from voting, voter registration was created as a disenfranchising tool meant to allay fears of noncitizens voting in the 1800s because of large waves of immigrants moving to America. According to FairVote, the unintended consequence of voter registration was that it wound up throwing many poor people off the voting rolls.
Earlier this month, I wrote on The Root about how nonvoters—who tend to be younger, browner and less financially stable—don’t vote even though they’re the people who need politicians to listen to them the most. And if you compare what’s going on today with what went down in the 1800s, nothing seems to have changed. The same individuals are still facing the same impediments to voting, all brought on under the guise of keeping noncitizens from voting, when these actions really seem designed more to make sure that the “right” citizens vote—namely, the ones who have always had the right to vote.
In our country, voting isn’t precious—it’s a prize delivered to those who already have the largest piece of the pie.
No one would pass a voting law that disproportionately affected white men who work on Wall Street. But because of fears of the “other” coming to influence American elections, we’ve eroded the voting rights of American citizens. In our country, voting isn’t precious—it’s a prize delivered to those who already have the largest piece of the pie. It’s about preserving a system that has never fully represented the views of this country.
So when you look at your do-nothing Congress, elected with 36.4 percent of the eligible vote, and you wonder how things got so bad, remember that this was all by design and always has been. As long as there is no constitutional protection of the right to vote and our courts continue to see voting as a privilege and not a right, we will never have a true democracy. Instead of the seal of the United States meaning “out of many, one,” it will always really mean “out of a few, some.”
The first step to making change is to make voter registration an automatic right that you’re guaranteed as a citizen once you turn 18. No registration required.