There are just over 318 million people in the United States. Of that, 211 million are eligible to vote. Considering that the U.S. is the birthplace of modern democracy, one would expect the U.S. to lead the world in voter participation.
Unfortunately, that isn’t true.
In the 2012 presidential election, only an estimated 57.5 percent of the voting population cast a vote. This figure was as low as 49 percent – less than half – in 1996, and hasn’t cracked the 60 percent mark since 1968.
For local elections, the turnout is even worse. And consistently, cycle after cycle, we fall far behind our peers in the developed world. The average turnout for other industrialized, democratic countries is around 70 percent; in the U.S., we’re lucky to get north of 40 percent during midterm elections, as will probably be the case this year.
For many groups of citizens, this result is unacceptable. One could go on and on about the civic duty of voting, or about the sense of pride and patriotism one gets from casting a ballot, but that doesn’t speak to the realities of why voting is crucially important.
The real reality is simple: Not voting strips citizens of their ability to defend their rights and assert themselves in a democratic process that is quickly becoming anything but.
There are only a few ways average, ordinary citizens can affect change. One is to vote with your wallet. Another is to control the flow of information, so that your opinion is the dominant one presented to the public. The first is difficult to pull off and doesn’t always affect policy, and the second is impossible because, by and large, information is controlled by a select few elite individuals and organizations, even with the advent of the internet.
Thus, voting represents the only way citizens can reliably create meaningful, lasting change and empower movements.
For certain groups, groups that have had their interests misrepresented or discarded completely, voting is the only way to make a difference. We saw this in 2011, with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy Wall Street generated a ton of publicity, and saw mostly young citizens participate fervently in public protest and awareness.
But what came of it? No lasting change. OWS still exists today, but no one can point to a single major law or policy that came from it. Income equality still exists and is growing annually. There is still precious little effective oversight of corporations and other institutions that led to the recession. The halls of Congress and of state legislatures across the country are still filled with politicians who run against the interest of the OWS protestors.
When groups of citizens choose to not exercise their right to vote, they run a very dangerous risk of becoming ignorable – groups that can be discounted without any risk of repercussions. We saw this in most of the 20th Century, when Jim Crow laws kept many African-Americans from voting, resulting in oppression and persecution in the South that lasted for decades and did unimaginable damage. We still see it today with gender inequality that came from a century and a half of women not being able to vote. And we will see it now and in the future with young people, who may feel passionately about their rights but don’t come to the polls and fight through the vote nearly as much as they should.
Voting matters. Not showing up at the polls on Election Day is one of the best ways to ensure your rights go unrepresented. Many politicians today are beholden to special interests and corporations that don’t represent mainstream America, the “little people” who make up this country. Laws passed don’t benefit these people; policies created are for elites and those who do vote and have the influence to sway elected officials.
Without voting, that lack of representation will only continue – and we’ll all suffer for it, one way or the other.