Well, the stats are in—compiled by the University of Florida—November’s election had the lowest turnout in 72 years.
Just over 36% of Americans went to the polls last November, giving the Republican Party a resounding victory, as you know. In 43 states, less than half of eligible voters showed up. Maine had the highest voter participation; Indiana the lowest.
According to exit polling, the vote broke down this way: women cast 51% of the ballots; men, 49%. Seventy-five percent of the voters were white; 12% black; eight percent Hispanic; and three percent Asian. Just 13% of voters are ages 18-to-29, a very low turnout. Forty-three percent of those who voted were ages 45-64.
Let’s be clear, though, non-voters are exercising their right in a democracy and they, too, are making a statement. They don’t care or they are turned off by the choices or they feel their vote doesn’t matter or will make a difference.
To be a well informed voter, there are three areas of understanding I think ideally they need to bring to the ballot:
I. A basic knowledge of how our government works;
II. An ability to see through the fog of claims and counterclaims; and
III. The ability to make judgments about candidates’ commitment to a majority of their own core values and philosophy.
I believe authentic voter ID is necessary to preserve the integrity of elections, but maybe voters need a certification or degree in the three areas mentioned above.
Let’s explore those three areas a little further.
I. Civics 101
In “Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter,” Ilya Somin of George Mason University Law School argues that an individual’s ignorance of public affairs is rational because the likelihood of his or her vote being decisive in an election is vanishingly small.
Somin says that in Cold War 1964, two years after the Cuban missile crisis, only 38 percent of Americans knew the Soviet Union was not a member of NATO. In 2003, about 70 percent were unaware of enactment of the prescription drug entitlement, then the largest welfare state expansion since Medicare (1965). In a 2006 Zogby poll, only 42 percent could name the three branches of the federal government.
Voters cannot hold officials responsible if they do not know what government is doing, or which parts of government are doing what. Given that 20 percent think the sun revolves around the earth, it is unsurprising that a majority are unable to locate major states such as New York on a map. Usually only 30 percent can name their two senators.
The average American expends more time choosing a car than choosing a candidate. But, then, the consequences of the former choice are immediate and discernible.
Many people, says Somin, acquire political knowledge for the reason people acquire sports knowledge—because it interests them, not because it will alter the outcome of any contest. And with “confirmation bias,” many people use political information to reinforce their pre-existing views.
Committed partisans are generally the most knowledgeable voters; independents the least. And the more political knowledge people have, the more apt they are to discuss politics with people who agree with, and reinforce, them.
According to a survey from the Annenberg PublicPolicy Center last fall, only 38 percent of Americans knew the Republican party controlled the U.S. House of Representatives, while 17 percent thought Democrats were still in charge. Only 17 percent knew it takes two-thirds majority of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto.
Ignorance about party control of Congress is particularly troubling, because voters unaware of these facts do not know which party to reward or blame for the legislature’s performance.
The statistics above certainly show the need for more or better education in schools; what we used to call “civics.” It is hard to pin down the state of civics education in our schools today. The term “civics” itself is not commonly used today. Some schools teach “government”; some meld the subject into a history course; some do nothing. Suffice it to say, learning “civics,” as we did many moons ago, is neither as universally popular nor as effective.
II. Seeing Through the Fog is mostly about paying attention and concentrating on what is being said. Are there facts behind the statements and claims? For instance, sometime back the Democrats kept saying Republicans wanted to cut the budget for school lunches. The facts were that Republicans wanted to cut the increase in funds. You need to be able to discern these kind of differences.
III. Are Candidates Aligned With You?—which starts with you making some decisions on core values, i.e., is government efficient enough to run big programs? Does constantly increasing our national debt have a negative effect on our economy? Do candidates address our main problems or critical issues—jobs, education and national security—or is their emphasis on less important issues?
IV. In California, the inclusion of propositions on the ballot with their confusing and deceptive arguments adds to the anti-voting attitude of the electorate. It poisons the whole process and creates apathy.
Without doing extensive, time-consuming research into each proposition, the only way for the average voter to decide what position to take is to determine who has initiated the proposition and who is for it and against it.
V. The so-called “jungle” or “top two” primary systems here in California are also a deterrent to voter turnout. When you have the top two vote getters from the same party on the general election ballot, there is a decided lack of incentive for people who generally support the other party to want to vote.
In California, where the registration numbers are so heavily Democratic, having two Democrats running in a general election won’t help turnout.
Then there is the often quoted statements of political pundits that “all politics is local.” That may have been true in yesteryear, but I don’t believe it holds the same water today.
If that were true, why do all midterm elections have lower turnouts? And why did President Obama proclaim on several occasions, “My policies are on the ballot”? That old adage certainly didn’t hold true in this last election.