Thursday, December 29, 2005

What If There Was An Election And Nobody Came?

In the last article I raised the question whether US citizens have become disenchanted with our electoral/political system. If they are, what is the evidence? If citizen participation in their democracy is dropping, at what point is the system's moral legitimacy called into question? 90% 80%? 70%? Dare we go lower?

I suspect those who belong to the two major parties here in the US as well as those who can't articulate their dissatisfaction with our electoral/political systems suffer from a form of myopia. When it comes to elections they see only that the glass is half full: vote totals. They ignore the half that's empty: non-participation. The press is no better.

This myopia leads to elections being described as "landslides" when, for instance, Reagan in 1980 only received a mere 26% approval from the voting age population (VAP). Another aspect of this myopia is when the press artificially contrived the simplistic blue/red state dichotomy. Others think they bring a more sophisticated view by introducing shades of purple and pink. In reality, depending on the election, only about 40-50% of the voting age population (VAP)is voting for one of the major parties and 50-60% is not bothering to vote at all. So what great insights can the press bring us when they ignore 50-60% of the population?

Let's look at the numbers.

Here are some VAP voting statistics for the US from:
http://www.idea.int/vt/country_view.cfm?CountryCode=US

This site does not yet cover the last 2 US elections. But since they do cover the previous 30 years they are, none the less, revealing. The numbers reflect the percentage of the total VAP that voted in each federal election between 1970 and 2000. If you've only looked at the glass being half full, you're in for a shock:

UNITED STATES CONGRESSIONAL VOTE
1970 46.6%
1972 55.2%
1974 38.2%
1976 53.5%
1978 37.2%
1980 52.6%
1982 39.8%
1984 53.1%
1986 36.4%
1988 50.1%
1990 36.5%
1992 55.1%
1994 38.8%
1996 49.1%
1998 34.7%
2000 46.6%

45.2% is the 30 YEAR AVERAGE VAP participation for ALL congressional races.

38.5% is the 30 year average VAP turnout just for OFF-YEAR congressional years.

There is a clear bump in the numbers during a presidential election year and rates. 51.9% is the average VAP turnout for congressional races in presidential years.

US PRESIDENTIAL RACES
1972 55.2%
1976 53.5%
1980 52.6%
1984 53.1%
1988 50.1%
1992 55.2%
1996 47.2%
2000 49.3%

The average VAP turnout between 1972 and 2000 for just presidential races is 52%.

So if the average congressional race turnout is 45.2%... what does that say about our system? It means that some 54.8% of the VAP is not voting. According to the http://www.sentencingproject.org/pdfs/barredforlife.pdf some 4.7 million felons have been disenfranchised and while sizeable that makes up only about 2-3% of the VAP. The real explanation lies elsewhere.

But it also means that those elected to the Congress and the Senate do NOT have the approval of the majority of the US citizens. They are there at the behest of, and beholden to, a minority of US citizens. Worst, since Congress and the Senate are often split down the middle... the ruling party may only have the approval of 23% of the VAP and the president only about 26% approval!

Which brings us back to my original questions. Have US citizens become disenchanted with our electoral/political system. If they are, what is the evidence? If citizen participation in their democracy is dropping, at what point is the system's moral legitimacy called into question? 90% 80%? 70%? Dare we go lower?

In a democracy the opinion of every citizens should count for something. Yet in the US the two Parties, the press, the system itself, are all ignoring between 48-62% of the population.

So what are those non-voters telling us?


ulTRAX

4 comments:

Alex said...

Hi Ultrax,

Just wondering whether you'd endorse a policy of compulsory voting, similar to that in Australia (http://www.australianpolitics.com/voting/systems/compulsory.shtml) where it is compulsory for all citizens to enrol & attend a polling booth at election time.

I would've thought such a policy would be more universal but, judging from the aforementioned link, it appears to be to the contrary. Aussies constitute a minority! :)

Alex said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ulTRAX said...

Sorry to delete the comment... it was a duplicate.

While I certainly favor policies that will maximize voter turnout, in the US the real problem is our electoral/political systems create disincentives to voting. The problem with any half measures is that they may end up perpetuating 2 party rule instead of breaking it. When it comes to its democracy the US is an international embarrassment. We rank 140 out of 163 nations in voter turnout. Denmark has no compulsory voting yet they have VAP participation rates that average 84% over the past 20 years.

The real solution is to rethink both our electoral and political systems... and that starts with taking off the blinders and getting reacquainted with democratic values.

Anonymous said...

Very Interesting!
Thank You!