The Disenchanted Voter

In the last few election cycles, there has been a lot of talk about disenfranchised voters. The usual suspects pop up: minority groups that have been awarded victim status by the left and who, it is charged, are kept from voting by those (read: Republicans) who would see their votes discounted in the interest of winning.

But there doesn't seem to be enough worrying about another type of voter: the disenchanted voter, who makes a conscious choice not to go to the polls on Election Day.

After Taylor Hicks won the last round of American Idol, 35 percent of Idol voters considered that vote to be more important than their vote for president of the United States. And according to the US Census Bureau, only 65.9% of eligible adults 18 years and older were registered to vote during the 2004 election. Of that number, only 58.3% voted. Statistics like those don't exactly bode well for our electoral process.

Sometimes it seems like those who don't bother to vote complain the loudest. An acquaintance of mine has not voted in years because he thinks being on the voter registration list increases his chances of getting snagged for jury duty. Yet he is one of the harshest critics of how our nation's leaders are running things.

A lunchtime conversation following President Bush's State of the Union address revealed a general positive consensus, and then the discussion moved on to the politicians who had been in the audience during the president's speech. We laughed at Nancy Pelosi's eyelash fluttering, Hillary Clinton's starry-eyed gaze, and Ted Kennedy trying to look as though he wasn't sleeping. Special note was made that John McCain was sleeping, at which point my co-worker Mark announced, "See, this is why I don't vote. They're all a bunch of crooks."

Co-worker Bob said, "You have to vote. People are dying to vote." Mark shrugged. "Then you can't complain about anything," Bob said.

Wendy McElroy, writing  for, does not agree with Bob's assessment:
It is commonly said, "If you don't vote, you have no right to complain about the outcome." The opposite is true. By playing the game, voters agree to the rules. Only those who don't play and withhold their consent have a right to complain about the outcome, especially since the winner will have his hand in the non-voter's pocket.

Voting is not an act of political freedom. It is an act of political conformity. Those who refuse to vote are not expressing silence. They are screaming in the politician's ear: "You do not represent me. This is not a process in which my voice matters. I do not believe you."
Perhaps if McElroy lived in a country where voting is either impossible or impossibly rigged by those in power (North Korea and Cuba come immediately to mind), she might have different ideas about political freedom versus conformity. Many in this country take the right to vote for granted, thus failing to realize how fortunate we really are.

The issue of non-voting is certainly not new. Back in 1976, a survey of eligible non-voters found:
Half of those interviewed said, "I just don't bother with politics." Their reasons? "Candidates say one thing and do another" (68 per cent). "It doesn't make much difference who is elected" (55 per cent). "Watergate proved that elected officials are only out for themselves" (52 per cent). Only a small minority mentioned such practical reasons as not being able to get to the polls (18 per cent) or the difficulty of registering to vote (12 per cent).
As the comments from my co-worker Mark suggest, the reasons for choosing not to vote have not changed much in the last thirty years...and perhaps even longer. But there is a difference between choosing not to get involved and not having the ability to get involved.

Sean Hannity has a weekly segment on his afternoon talk radio show called Man on the Street, where he has an assistant stop people on the streets of New York and ask them questions about politics and other important issues on-air. Shortly before the 2006 midterm election, I listened as he had his assistant show pictures of Donald Rumsfeld, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and Britney Spears to various individuals. With the exception of Spears, the photo subjects went unrecognized by nearly everyone questioned.

In today's high-tech information age, there should be no excuse for citizens not to recognize the faces of those who make decisions that affect us all. Unfortunately, more people can recognize self-made celebrity Paris Hilton than can recognize Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. The exception might be those politicians who, with the help of the left-leaning mainstream media, have become part of the celebrity culture: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are two current examples.

To be sure, celebrity gossip can be a lot more interesting than the partisan grappling that goes on non-stop in Washington. A kind media Gresham's Law finds soft news (Anna Nicole Smith) driving out the hard (federal budget)/ Still, it behooves us all to have at least a general idea of what's going on in our nation's capital on a regular basis, and not try to cram four years' worth of ideology and policy into our brains come election time. When that's the case, no wonder people would rather stay at home and watch 24's hero Jack Bauer take down the bad guys.

So why the disconnect? Why aren't more Americans in tune with politics? A major reason is a lack of civic knowledge. According to a study, high-school dropouts were less likely to vote (among other things) than their better-educated fellow citizens. But staying in school is no guarantee that students will know that our government is based on a checks and balances system: the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools reported  in 2003 that "most formal civic education today comprises only a single course on government-compared to as many as three courses in civics, democracy, and government that were common until the 1960s" and "[b]etween 1988 and 1998, the proportion of fourth-graders who reported taking social studies daily fell from 49 percent to 39 percent, a steep decline that reflects a general trend away from civics and social studies in elementary grades."

My own two children, in grades 5 and 9, have a more distressing deficiency in knowledge on these topics than I did when I was at their respective ages. Why would we expect citizens with a severe lack of comprehension of our country's history and basic principles to take an active interest in how our elected officials go about their daily jobs? It's like expecting your average European to avidly follow American football or baseball: it just ain't gonna happen.

Some cynics might say that this downturn in civics and history education is intentional, as a less-informed populace might be more easily swayed to vote a particular way. Regardless of the reason, we need to put more pressure on our schools to resurrect these important educational tools. Even if you don't have children of school age, you are affected - as the children of today become the keepers of the zoo tomorrow. Taxpayers should demand that the teachers they pay turn out citizens knowledgeable in the inner workings of our country's government.

But what about the eligible voters who do understand the way government works and still don't go to the polls? Perhaps it really is because they'd rather see who makes the finals during American Idol. Or, perhaps it's because politicians, who cocoon themselves in our nation's capital, haven't the foggiest idea what their constituents really want or need. It could even be a growing blasé attitude caused by media that pounce greedily on political scandals and has a penchant for reporting more of the bad than the good.

Some countries, like Australia, have compulsory voting laws. It's tempting to suggest that such a law be passed here. Unfortunately, that smacks more of Big Brother, and takes the element of personal responsibility out of the equation. What it boils down to is education.

Education is the key. As Will Durant said, "Education is the transmission of civilization."

Pamela Meister writes about politics and world events on her blog. She can be contacted here.
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