Voter Participation

Julian Knight, Opinion Editor

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The results of the 2016 presidential election were surprising to many, from Donald Trump’s unexpected victory to revelations of Russian interference, but little attention has been paid to the voter turnout. In the world’s oldest democracy, just over half of eligible voters participated. In fact, 2016 saw record-low turnout—ironic, given the charged atmosphere of that year’s election season. Only the 1996 elections saw lower participation, where 53.5% of eligible voters turned up at the polls.

Non-voters can be placed into two categories: those who are unable to vote (not registered or ineligible), and those who can vote but choose not to. The latter can be for a wide variety of reasons; in some cases, a voter is dissatisfied or indecisive, while in others, they find themselves unable to access the polls. And while some alternatives to Election Day exist, such as early voting, these are not widespread practices, and undecided voters are likely to wait until the last minute to cast a ballot regardless. Additionally, Election Day is just that—a single day. Most people work from nine to five and many cannot afford, financially or otherwise, to leave work and cast a vote that they believe will be meaningless anyway.

This fact must be addressed, for the right to free and fair elections is critical to the legitimacy of a democratic government and to national unity overall. Yet, over the years, voting has become less of a celebrated opportunity to voice one’s opinion and more of an inconvenience. After months of debate, Election Day arrives, held on an ordinary Tuesday in a difficult-to-locate polling place. Such a schedule, while harmless in a once-agrarian America, now discourages many from voting at a logistical level. Over time, this can reduce voter turnout and leave citizens with busier schedules or fewer polling places underrepresented. While citizens must attend work and school the day that they vote, Veterans Day (observed on November 11) is a federal holiday—something that has prompted many to suggest that Election Day should be granted a similar status, or else be extended over several days in order to maximize voter turnout.

If such a holiday was implemented, voting could be transformed into more of an event than a chore. The number of polling places needed could be reduced (saving taxpayer dollars), voting procedures could include better information about candidates and referenda. Election Day would be better integrated into American culture as a result, and voting would be once again viewed as an object of pride.

Furthermore, to combat disinterested or abstinent voters, voting should be made compulsory for those eligible. Such a policy is already enforced with fines in the Australian elections, where 95% of those eligible vote. But the effects of low voter turnout can be seen elsewhere around the world. In the UK, only 36% of eligible Britons voted to pass the Brexit referendum; in 2016, Donald Trump won the electoral college despite having convinced only 26% of the electorate to vote for him. In Trump’s case, his victory was determined by turnout, not by swing voters, as is seen in Australia. Similarly, the increased power of Australian centrist voters forces victories towards the center, and leaves xenophobic politicians in fringe parties that have little sway over elections.

Another benefit of a compulsory voting system is that citizens would be less susceptible to the disinformation and voter suppression campaigns that convinced many to stay home for the 2016 election; already, the #WalkAway movement is trending for the 2018 midterm elections, threatening another year of disappointing turnout statistics. And, if voters feel entirely uninspired, they won’t be obliged to support a candidate—all they have to do is show up.

This piece also appears in our October 2018 print edition.