Today’s Most Important Assignment

About a month ago, Anna Kloeden raised thought-provoking questions about how a compulsory voting system might affect the candidates’ substantive positions as well as the ways in which campaigns are conducted. Her post made me wonder what is known about nonvoters. How numerous are they? Where are they on the political spectrum? What are the reasons they don’t vote?

According to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau, 64% of voting-age citizens voted in the 2008 presidential elections, and 71% were registered to vote. The report notes significant variations in voting turn-out depending on race / origin (non-Hispanic blacks and whites had significantly higher voting rates than Asians and Hispanics), age (voting rates increased with age), and education level (higher education levels corresponded with higher voting rates). Nonvoters are not without opinions. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that non-voting hurts the Democrats: nonvoters overwhelmingly favor Obama (59%) over Romney (24%), and the Democrats (52%) over the Republican Party (27%). Nonvoters express stronger support for a more active government and for the 2010 health care law. As for foreign policy issues, withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan finds significantly more support under nonvoters than under likely voters. Nonvoters are less supportive of an aggressive stance toward Iran because of its nuclear program.

So, why do so many eligible citizens refrain from exercising a privilege that earns them the envy of the rest of the world? Surveys come up with varying answers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost half of those who failed to register for the 2008 elections identified as the main reason lack of interest in the election or non-involvement in politics. Another 15% had failed to meet registration deadlines. A recent survey conducted by Suffolk University and USA TODAY, however, counters the impression that political apathy is rampant among non-voters: 64% of unlikely voters indicated that they follow developments in government “most of the time,” including when there is no election around the corner. For those who didn’t register to vote, the Suffolk University-USA TODAY survey identifies as the most common reason “no time/ busy” (26%), followed by “vote doesn’t count/matter” (12%).

More than 150 years ago, John Stuart Mill observed in On Liberty that “[t]he will of the people . . . practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people[.]” (Emphasis added.) It is troubling that more than a third of eligible citizens opt out and effectively let more active citizens decide for them. This is especially true when—as the Pew Research Center’s survey suggests—the preferences and positions of the nonvoters don’t correspond to the ones held by those who do vote. As a practical matter, how can we detect shifts over time, if so many people don’t let their voices be heard in the elections? But the issue is not only important because of the instrumental role of elections in a representative democracy. Voting is an act of civic engagement. Election time provides occasion to reflect on and deliberate about broader societal issues, to evaluate the effectiveness of solutions that have been tried out in the past, and to determine on which direction you want to place your bet.

Don’t get me wrong: there are good justifications, as well as good reasons, for not voting. As for the first category, emergencies happen. Moreover, the unfortunate reality is that getting to a poll station is still disproportionately burdensome for some. As for the second category, declining to vote can be a conscious expression of rejection of all candidates, or of the political system. It’s also possible—but, I think, less likely—that you find the candidates and their positions equally deserving of your vote.

But to those of you who consider not voting because you don’t care about politics, or are too busy, or believe your vote doesn’t count (perhaps because you don’t get to vote in a battleground state): I urge you to reconsider. I want you to vote, even if your vote will be against the side I favor (and yes, I absolutely hope my side will win!). And I want you to vote, regardless of whether you live in Washington, Wisconsin, or Wyoming. It may not always be apparent, but every election is important, and every vote matters.

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