Our Voting System is Broken. Only Voting Can Fix It.
Of all the issues facing voters on Election Day, voting itself is the most important.
Voting rights are on the ballot in 13 states this November. In Michigan, a ballot initiative would replace partisan gerrymandering with bipartisan fair-districting. In Florida, a ballot initiative would restore voting rights to thousands of ex-felons.
Voters must do their part to fight voter suppression and gerrymandering, but not if they don’t care enough to vote. Even as Georgia’s recent voter suppression scandal garners the headlines — and rightly so — the most pressing issue facing American democracy is voter apathy. By not casting ballots, apathetic voters essentially vote by not voting — ceding their voices to a more politically engaged minority.
Throughout our history, men and women fought and died for the right to vote — from the American Revolution to the Civil War and suffragette movement. Today, too many Americans are content staying at home.
If past is indeed prologue, there is cause for concern this election cycle. Midterm election turnout is traditionally lower than presidential election turnout, hovering around 40 percent in any given cycle. In 2014, only 36.4 percent of voting-eligible Americans actually went to the polls — the lowest turnout since World War II, when millions of eligible voters were preoccupied fighting abroad. In 2016, barely half of all voting-age citizens exercised their right to vote.
Even the high point for voter turnout — the 2008 election — saw less than two-thirds of Americans head to the polls. Our best simply isn’t good enough, and our worst leaves us with anything but representative democracy.
Voter apathy is hardly new, but we have reached new lows. The situation is so dire that former President Obama recently decided to address it. In his words: “You wouldn’t let your grandparents pick your playlist. Why would you let them pick your representative who’s going to determine your future?”
Of course, voter suppression — the concerted effort to make voting more difficult — certainly plays a role in decreasing turnout. Georgia’s voter registration debacle, which disproportionately affected would-be minority voters, is only the latest example. Too often, our elected officials abuse their power by suppressing the votes of those who would dare to challenge it.
But voter suppression alone cannot account for the millions of Americans who chose to stay home in 2014 — or 2016, for that matter. And it won’t account for the millions more likely to stay home next week.
Fortunately, we are making strides to mobilize voters ahead of the 2018 midterms. Companies like Walmart and Lyft are promoting “Time to Vote,” a nonpartisan effort to turn their loyal customers into regular voters. Nonprofit organizations like Every Vote Counts, which we are proud to lead, dedicate themselves to engaging with college students — America’s most apathetic voting bloc — many of whom participate in marches and protests, but stay home on Election Day. Our National Pledge to Vote hopes to leverage the power of peer pressure to turn marchers and protestors into voters.
Voter mobilization efforts may be paying off. According to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 65 percent of all registered voters claim to have a “high interest” in the November midterms — the largest percentage since 2006.
On Election Day, voter turnout will determine the health of American democracy at this point in our history. None of our policy positions or political persuasions matter if we do not express them at our local polling station. But interest in voting only matters if we actually vote.
The time for talk is over. Let’s make our voices heard.
Campbell Streator serves as program director at Every Vote Counts, a student-led, nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout and expanding voter access. Harold Ekeh is the president of Every Vote Counts’ Yale University chapter.