What does record low voter turnout tell us?


Despite all the media hype about how crucial this mid-term election was and the much-ballyhooed sophisticated methods each party supposedly had developed for getting their supporters to the polls, the number of people who actually voted may turn out to be a historic low. As NPR’s Robert Siegel reports:

In the past two presidential elections, around 130 million Americans cast votes. In the midterms four years ago, 91 million voters took part. That number represented 42 percent of the American population of voting age. This year – well, the numbers aren’t official yet, and political scientist Michael McDonald of the University of Florida who tracks such things told me today that the total is likely to rise a little as late arriving mail-in ballots and other missing votes are counted.

But as of today, according to numbers from the Associated Press, a bit over 83 million people voted. As a share of the voting-eligible population, that is 36.6 percent. It was a lot higher than that in Colorado and New Hampshire where there were very hard-fought Senate races.

But if after all the votes are counted, if the national turnout rate doesn’t reach 38.1 percent, it would be the lowest turnout since the midterm elections of 1942. And as Michael McDonald points out, that was in the middle of the Second World War.

What might explain this low rate? Some people are clearly principled non-voters, people who have decided that they are boycotting elections because they are part of a rigged system. The rigging is not as blatant as in overtly authoritarian nations but they feel that they are rigged in subtle ways and that it is only by turning our backs on the rotten system that we can somehow create a groundswell for reform.

But in most cases, the reason for not voting is likely just apathy. But even apathy need not be a negative reflection on the voter but can again be an indictment of the system. If people feel there is no point in voting because it has no relevance to their actual lives, then they too are making a statement about the system and how they feel that it no longer serves them irrespective of who wins and loses.

Pew did a survey of nonvoters and came up with the results that nonvoters are more likely to be younger, more racially and ethnically diverse, less affluent, and less educated. Ominously for the Democratic party:

Taking into account the party leanings of independents, about half of nonvoters (51%) either identify as Democrats or lean Democratic; just 30% affiliate with the GOP or lean Republican, while 20% do not lean toward either party.

The Democrats have to seriously ask themselves why their natural constituency is not enthusiastic about them.

What I would like to see is a study as to the reasons why people don’t vote, to gauge the degree of disillusionment with the system.

Comments

  1. Chiroptera says

    The Democrats have to seriously ask themselves why their natural constituency is not enthusiastic about them.

    Now in the second decade of the 21st century, the Democrats’ natural constituency is the wealthy elite. And, yes, it is a mystery why the wealthy elite isn’t enthusiastic about the Democrats since the other party’s policies are almost designed to destroy the economy that keeps them wealthy.

  2. jonap says

    The Democrats have to seriously ask themselves why their natural constituency is not enthusiastic about them.

    What I would like to see is a study as to the reasons why people don’t vote, to gauge the degree of disillusionment with the system.

    I have a few ideas. To preface, I am in the Democrats voting constituency, but intentionally choose not to vote because of both Democratic policy and politics. Electing a Democratic controlled government in 2008 did not yield any significantly different policies. I understand that the Republican party will make no efforts to enact policies that benefit me, because I am not in a group that routinely funds Republican party campaigns, but the Democrats have not demonstrated an interest in enacting my policy preferences either.

    The Democrats occasionally talk about the issues important to me. They say things about income inequality, better education and healthcare systems, better social safety net, stronger middle class, etc. But they don’t do any of this.

    They should be constantly introducing legislation to increase the minimum wage, and automatically adjust it for inflation, increasing investments in transportation and communication infrastructure, energy efficiency, healthcare, education, and retirement. But they don’t do any of that.

    They should be constantly hammering the Republicans for not wanting to raise the wages of hard working Americans who are struggling, for not wanting our bridges and highways to be safe, for not wanting us to have the world’s fastest internet connections, for not wanting to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, for not wanting everyone to be healthy, for not wanting everyone to have every educational opportunity, for not wanting the elderly to live in poverty.

    The Democrats need to be constantly hammering the message that funding these areas are investments in the economy. Investments in all of these things will provide new job opportunities, thus growing our economy. Increased energy efficiency is necessary for the environment as well. It’s a twofer. This is what I want the Democrats to support (and the Republicans too; I’d like to have a choice about who to vote for). But they can’t just tell me that they agree with me (I think it’s hard to disagree with any of this), but they have to actually do it. Whoever does this will have earned my vote.

    There is also the “security” police-state spying on us and intruding into our lives. They need to stop this as well.

  3. lorn says

    Democratic voters are quite often idealists that think in childish romantic terms. They have never been up to the hard work of maintaining what they have gained and so we tend to lose it. More than half of the liberals I know just couldn’t be bothered. There just wasn’t enough candy on the ballot to motivate a ten minute detour to vote. Whining children who are are at risk for having their toys taken away.

    It took labor from the early 1900s to the early 70s to get to the top of their game. But only 8 years of Reagan to see it all rolled back.

    Everything gained in the long struggle for civil rights, gay rights, abortion rights could be reversed in a a single term. Without people in power to defend these right you can lose them very quickly. As illustration you might look at Afghanistan where, for a time, women were relatively free and represented, and then, in the space of a few months, they were not an any woman not completely covered and silent could be killed essentially at will.

    The US is startlingly close to a GOP takeover with the fundamentalist and dominionists drooling over the control that will be granted them. It doesn’t matter a whit that the majority are liberal leaning. The majority in Afghanistan were far more progressive than not but the fundamentalist had guns, and thus power. Redistricting and voter suppression is now an established science but those options are just the velvet glove used to twist the outcome. There is an iron gauntlet under that velvet and it will serve to never, ever forget that the right is quite happy and comfortable using bully-boy tactics. The vote in Florida was rigged by bullies and insider political operatives and it cost Gore the presidency.

    Those worried about surveillance are going to look back at he Obama years as the good old days if the GOP takes over. On the up side you won’t be hearing about surveillance or abuses. The GOP is pretty good about keeping things quiet. So enjoy the peace and quiet and go buy yourself a new TV.

    http://www.salon.com/2014/10/30/im_terrified_of_my_new_tv_why_im_scared_to_turn_this_thing_on_and_youd_be_too/

    The bottom line here is that while gay rights, misogyny, and feminism are important, they are entirely secondary to raw political power. If you can’t get and maintain people in office who are willing to protect and advance those rights, or at least not undermine them, it all goes away.

    But hey … it isn’t like anyone here is going to listen. So it goes.

  4. Great American Satan says

    lorn- I can accept being frustrated with the people who should know enough to get off they asses and vote, but your rhetoric is more of the kind of one-issue obsession which keeps the left divided. People who care about gay rights should also try to advance not-quite-related issues like privacy vs. state surveillance. But people saying all human rights issues are “entirely secondary to raw political power” aren’t exactly doing their part for coalition-building either. You are right that they are dependent on raw political power, but you won’t inspire people to achieve that power without appealing to their morals and passion, which is where the political dems are falling down.

  5. Sean (I am not an imposter) says

    I wouldn’t say that people who avoid voting are “apathetic.” They do care for the most part, there is just nothing for them to vote for. Both parties stand for war, plutocracy, Zionism, the destruction of civil liberties and corporatism. One side promotes bigotry against white working class people, the other minorities and women. There is simply nothing on that list any sane person would find appealing.

    I doubt the right-wing will be any more successful at undermining the social safety net than Obama and the Dems have been, and issues like abortion are way too useful in keeping people divided to resolve one way or the other. No side wants to alienate women voters, just generate antagonism between the sexes. Christian fundamentalists get abortions, too.

  6. Ed says

    The religious right is an alliance of necessity between a bunch of sub-groups that hate each other. The militant demons and miracles, read Left Behind a million times Protestant faction alone is made up of poorly organized sects that think anyone with slightly different versions of the same thing is evil–let alone their other allies of convenience.

    The real weirdos have to get along with each other while also not scaring away the conservative element within the more mainstream Protestant churches, the Catholic traditionalists, the Orthodox Jews and the Mormons. Someday, they’ll probably have to reach out to the Muslims in some districts to grab a little more support.

    On top of that, they need the help of the center right population whose religiosity varies greatly and can dissent on social issues. Even then, they need to scare a good number of moderates and independents into voting for things they don’t really believe in because they’re mad at the Democrats or obsessed with some single issue agenda.

    Without devil Obama and a Democratic majority to rally against, blame all their problems on and distract from their own internal divisions, they’ll fall apart again. Unless they get powerful enough to suspend elections, they’ll be back to frantically rebuilding their house of cards pretty soon. Meanwhile, having to put up with them will mobilize progressives.

  7. says

    Every election I vote, because every election has people I want to vote against.

    I would dearly love to have an election with someone I could enthusiastically vote FOR.

  8. says

    Voter apathy isn’t the only reason people don’t vote.

    In Texas alone, an estimated 600,000 people were denied their right to vote because of republican voting fraud (re: “no ID, no vote”). How many millions of people across the US in total were prevented from voting because of this?

    And as Mano says, many are likely to vote democrat. That’s why there were targeted – the poor and minorities, who are also the people least likely to have picture ID.

  9. Johnny Vector says

    Jonap @3 demonstrates the problem when he says

    Electing a Democratic controlled government in 2008 did not yield any significantly different policies.

    I suppose this kind of know-nothing attitude comes from the constant beat of Fox News etc driving the conversation into never-never land. We need to get back to reality, where things would be much different now if 2008 had been won by Republicans.

    Start with SCOTUS. Without Obama, we would not have Sotomayor and Kagan, and without them Windsor would have gone the other way. We’re going to have SSM as the law of the land a year from now; no way that would have happened if Kennedy had written the dissent instead of the majority opinion in Windsor.

    No, y’know what, don’t start there. Start with PPACA. It warps my mind that seemingly educated people can walk around saying that there’s no difference between Dems and Repubs when 20 million more people have health insurance now. How is that not a significant policy difference?

    And did you see Ryan’s budget plan? If the last 6 years had been with a Republican president and congress, Social Security as we know it would very likely be gone by now.

    And we would be fully into a ground war in Iran, which we would be paying for by cutting taxes, however that works.

    All this, and we still get people saying both parties are equivalent. How do we fix this?

  10. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    On the lack of Dem turnout for midterms question, there was a good exchange at
    Lawyers, Guns & Money that I think gets to some of the problem:

    MikeyR says:

    November 6, 2014 at 3:55 pm
    I think there’s a really widespread misunderstanding of how our government works; so many believe that the President has all the power and Congress is somehow not so important. It’s really the only explanation for our biannual national display of stupidity. It also explains how republicans in Congress have no fear that their sabotage will bite them in the ass.

    cleek says:

    November 6, 2014 at 4:15 pm
    I think there’s a really widespread misunderstanding of how our government works; so many believe that the President has all the power and Congress is somehow not so important.

    personally, i think this is the core of it all.

    when liberals complain about government, they complain about the President. Obama gets all the blame for everything. he gets blamed for what Congress passes and what it doesn’t pass. he gets blamed for not being able to force Congress to do it’s job and gets blamed for not doing Congress’ job. there’s rarely even acknowledgement that Congress has as much say (at least) as the President in the kinds of things that matter most to liberals.

    whenever i see a link to any article where a liberal is complaining about Obama, the first thing i do is search for “Congress”. if i don’t find it, i don’t read the article. because while Obama certainly isn’t perfect, to leave Congress out of the discussion is to ignore at least half of the problem.

    and then they stay home in midterms and act all shocked and boohooy when the President can’t perform miracles.

    it’s hard to avoid thinking that there are a lot of people who really don’t know how our government actually works.

    I would agree with that. I’ve been astounded by the number of FB posts I’ve seen by Progressive friends who fancy themselves politically informed that just don’t seem to get: the role that Congress plays, the unprecedented obstructionism of Republicans, the activism of the SCOTUS etc., and just would rather gripe about how Obama doesn’t try hard enough or is unwilling to compromise etc.

  11. says

    The more money they spend the worse it’ll get. Because it’s obvious to everyone now that it’s a Cole/Pepsi choice: either way you’re getting a sugary fizzy drink that tastes pretty much the same.

    There is no difference between apathy and a principled objection to choosing between two evils – in the end it works out the same. We all represent a mass of voters that could someday latch onto a 3rd party candidate for change and reveal the lie for what it is. That would ruin the game for a bit, so they want to demonize us as immoral and apathetic.

    If humpty dumpty could get on the ballot there would be significant support, out of sheer loathing. Meanwhile, the machine is putting a new coat of paint on the Hillary robot.

  12. says

    Vote Nobody!
    Because:
    – Nobody tells the truth
    – Nobody cares
    – Nobody has the courage to resist big money
    – Nobody is the candidate for peace
    – Nobody cares about jobs
    – Nobody will end torture and close gitmo
    – Nobody does what they say they will
    – Nobody is worth voting for!!

  13. alkaloid says

    I live in California and I do vote regularly. My life is such that I tend to either have some small amount of money or time, but never both-but if I did have both I would be a lot more involved in politics than I am currently.

    At the same time I want nothing to do with the Democratic Party and do not support it-or the Republicans. I say this after upon multiple occasions ‘giving them a chance’ and watching them blow it over and over again. I vote for initiatives that I care about (and some of them actually win occasionally) but since California is a state where for a lot of elections your choice is either a Democrat or a Republican I choose to leave those slates blank. In fact, in my lifetime I would like to hope to see a mass abandonment of the Democrats in favor of a party that better represents us, instead of insulting and defrauding us for all of the support that people like me have given it.

    1) As for why, let’s start with the following excerpts, which describe what the Democrats have been doing:

    (Taken from the article implausibly titled “Let’s Nominate Chris Hayes” at Salon.com, which is another problematic point that I’ll get to later).

    But pleasing the conservative blogosphere by keeping Bush’s secretary of defense was hardly a sign that even this scaled-back ambition would be met. Obama launched his first drone strikes within days of taking office, declined to prosecute war crimes—invoking the Nazi’s own Nuremberg defense—and ended up jailing whistleblowers who tried to expose crimes, instead. He has used the Espionage Act six times—twice as many times as all other presidents combined, and it’s now reached the point where we’re fighting “secret wars” in more than twice as many countries as Bush envisioned—up to 134 at last count.

    4. Repeatedly pushing to cut Social Security and Medicare as a part of a “grand bargain” to reduce the deficit, despite the fact that such cuts are deeply unpopular with all Americans—even conservatives—but are especially unpopular with the Democratic base.

    There’s a lot more in the main article of course. There is, in fact, a lot more that is omitted such as Obama’s continuum of support for Israel’s continuous mass murder or Rahm Emanuel’s war against the educational system in Chicago (and the people that it would otherwise serve). Obama’s war against Syria, which has no conceivable positive outcome and I think even some people in the CIA have serious doubts about arming factions within it against ISIS, is another example.

    The point that I’m ultimately trying to get at is that a lot of the positions that the Democrats, at least on a national level, support and actively promulgate-especially the ones where they agree with the Republicans on the essentials although they differ greatly on the specifics, are not positions that I support. In fact, they’re far worse than that in that they claim, over and over again, that they are going to do things that would merit my support-and then don’t do them.

    2) Too often the Democrats and those who defend them define themselves not in terms of what they are actually doing, but in terms of what they prevent from happening (which often ends up happening anyway). The above statements are textbook examples of this in action (or should that be inaction)?

    Start with SCOTUS. Without Obama, we would not have Sotomayor and Kagan, and without them Windsor would have gone the other way. We’re going to have SSM as the law of the land a year from now; no way that would have happened if Kennedy had written the dissent instead of the majority opinion in Windsor.

    And did you see Ryan’s budget plan? If the last 6 years had been with a Republican president and congress, Social Security as we know it would very likely be gone by now.

    The Republicans can get away with being obstructionists and still being supported because their ideology fundamentally supports the exercise of absolutist power in other spheres besides government (ie, the corporate) anyways-so if they make government basically nonfunctional they are doing what their base essentially wants. In comparison, when Democrats either do the opposite of what their supporters wanted or they just come across as basically doing nothing but not being Republicans, people are going to end up not wanting to be Democrats.

    3) The Democrats lack the tenacity, vision, and leadership to fight the Republicans.

    leftover1under wrote:

    Texas alone, an estimated 600,000 people were denied their right to vote because of republican voting fraud (re: “no ID, no vote”). How many millions of people across the US in total were prevented from voting because of this?

    Uncle Ebeneezer wrote:

    ’ve been astounded by the number of FB posts I’ve seen by Progressive friends who fancy themselves politically informed that just don’t seem to get: the role that Congress plays, the unprecedented obstructionism of Republicans, the activism of the SCOTUS etc., and just would rather gripe about how Obama doesn’t try hard enough or is unwilling to compromise etc.

    So what was the Democratic Party’s plan to deal with a Supreme Court that could only be described as ideologically deranged? The last time there was really a parallel issue I would say was Roosevelt dealing with an anti-labor, pro-corporate Supreme Court at the beginning of the New Deal era (and today’s Supreme Court, because their intellectual reach is now far greater is if anything far worse). Roosevelt responded with the concept of court packing which got it to finally do the only worthwhile thing that it could do given its composition at the time: namely he got it to shut up. Democratic politicians have no stomach for that kind of fight, much less for addressing the larger, political-theoretical issues of whether the Supreme Court, given that they can (and do) say practically anything with no regard for consequence, history, or sometimes even precedent, is a good idea, or the idea that perhaps instead of refighting the same battles over voting rights, we might be better off joining the 20th century and having a universal right to vote instead. Similarly, if the Democrats know that the Republicans are going to use filibusters to prevent anything from happening in the Senate (as well as terrible ideas like secret legislative holds) in advance, why don’t they do anything about it?

    Furthermore, the Democratic Party, at least in the time when I’ve been paying attention to it, has a horrific tendency to recycle the same small group of politicians and administrators no matter how mediocre a job they’ve done. John Kerry? Harry Reid? Rahm Emanuel? Nancy Pelosi? Most of the time when these people have had any amount of power the Democratic Party has actually lost ground-yet they keep on being put forward over and over again.

    I’m sure the counterargument to the previous paragraph is that they can bring someone in. This was tried with Howard Dean-who was no far leftist-and when he did just enough to salvage the Democratic Party they got rid of them and returned to form. Since that was true in the past, why should anyone believe them in the future?

    4) Too often Democrats (not just the politicians, but their ideological advocates and average Democrats) have a lot of contempt for their voters.

    Rahm Emanuel called progressives “*(*(*(* retards” (I’m not sure about this blog’s stance on swearing, so I’m erring on the side of caution. Rebecca Solnit refers to people dissatisfied with the Obama administration as “rancid leftists” from her abominable article “Greetings From The Rancid Left” while swooning for Edward Snowden (even though Obama would have him thrown in a sensory deprivation cell in a second if or when he ever comes back). Obama talks down to a group of Morehouse graduates with the same level of condescension that you would expect to hear from William Bennett.

    They’ve told themselves for years that their voters have nowhere to go but there’s still one choice left-namely choosing to not go anywhere or return the ballot instead.

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