Why So Few People Vote

Register to VoteI just read an amazing article by Seth Masket at Pacific Standard magazine, Making Voting Harder Is a Time-Honored American Tradition. When I first saw the headline, I wasn’t going to read it. I thought that I knew what it was about. I know the ways that conservatives — from the very start of the union — tried to limit the franchise of voting. But that isn’t what the article is really about.

The whole system of registering to vote was not a conservative effort. It was rather the result of progressive reforms. There was certainly a lot of racism and general elitism. But the main thing was that the progressive movement was largely focused on anti-corruption. The belief was that many of the party machines were manipulating the vote. So they tried to stop this by requiring voter registration. This probably did have the effect of stopping that kind of corruption — but only by introducing a whole new kind of corruption that we live with today. Check out this graph:

Voter Turnout Over Time

What we see here is that eligible voters voted in very high numbers until registration was required. And then it plummeted. So we got rid of explicit corruption in the form of well organized political operations. And we replaced it with implicit corruption in the form of an electorate that is heavily skewed in the direction of wealth. And as you can see, there is basically no change in voting behavior ever since — for the last one hundred years.

Masket noted what’s perhaps most important for us to take away from this graph:

The timeline below makes it pretty plain that those new laws were the cause of declining voter turnout. Americans didn’t suddenly become apathetic or irresponsible after 1900. New voter registration rules meant that if they wanted to vote, they had to register for the privilege of doing so several months before the election.

I get annoyed every time I hear people — especially retired people — claim that the young and the poor shouldn’t vote given that they don’t care enough to make time for it. But the people who claim this don’t have to make time for it. They don’t have to pick the kids up after school. They don’t have to be on time for work. They don’t have to re-register to vote because they had to move. But instead of feeling their entitlement, these older and wealthier voters think that they are better than the people whose lives don’t make voting convenient.

It is in this context that the new Oregon voter registration law is so powerful. It takes an important impediment out of the way of people who want to vote. Throughout the last half of the 19th century, 80% of eligible voters showed up to vote in presidential elections. We could have that again. But of course, there are a whole lot of very powerful people who don’t want 80% of the people showing up to vote. Imagine how much better this country would be if we had 80% turnout. The Republican Party would have to change in major ways or be relegated to a regional party. Either would be an improvement. But more important: the Democratic Party would be far more populist. The laws passed in Washington would have something to do with what the people actually wanted. The country would be a lot closer to having a government of the people, by the people, for the people. As of now, it has perished from this nation.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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