British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once declared: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms.” Our democracy can be and has been disappointing to some, but it can’t be denied that a democracy’s ability to reach its full potential and wide array of ideals rests on the foundation of citizen involvement—voting.
Congressman and civil-rights icon John Lewis reminds us that: “The vote is the most powerful non-violent tool we have…(and that) too many people struggled, suffered and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote.”
Yet, voter turnout is way down. New York State, in fact, had the unwanted distinction of ranking number 46 in voter turnout nationwide in 2014, with only 29.1 percent of New York City residents eligible to vote casting a ballot that year. Recent national trends indicate that 60 percent of eligible voters turnout for Presidential elections and 40 percent for the midterms. Compare this with international turnout in nations such as Australia, Belgium and Chile, where voting is mandatory, and the turnout reaches 90 percent. Other countries like Austria, Sweden and Italy boast 80-percent voter participation.
Low voter turnout is not a new phenomenon. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said many years ago: “Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they can do this is by not voting.” It could be argued that low turnout is even more troubling today because it flies in the face of countless stories of people struggling throughout the world to gain the right to vote, as well as great dissatisfaction voiced by many Americans with our current government leaders.
This then begs the question: why don’t more people vote in our country? Another civil rights icon, Andrew Young, was both baffled and disturbed by the problem too. He reflected: “Having personally watched the Voting Rights Act being signed into law that August day, I can’t begin to imagine how we could have been so wrong in believing that more Americans would vote once they were truly free to do so.”
Jesse Jackson also expressed his dismay with voter turnout, noting: “Many have fought for and even lost their lives to end segregation to win the right to vote. It disappoints me to now have to cajole people to register and vote.”
We know—only too well—that elections have consequences, some of which are very difficult to abide by after the fact. President Abraham Lincoln once sarcastically commented on this, remarking: “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their backs and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”
In more-serious language, Lincoln also commented on the power of the vote, saying: “The ballot is stronger than the bullet.” And, President Lyndon Johnson viewed voting as essential, noting: “The right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people, as individuals, control over their own destinies.”
The 2016 presidential election, for example, saw little more than half of voting-age Americans cast votes in the general election. Not since 1996 had there been such a low turnout. Even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote—and won in New York by 59.01 percent—in key states that propelled Donald Trump to victory in the Electoral College, the voting percentage was even higher than the all-time-highest voter turnout nationally, when 64 percent of Americans voted in the 2008 presidential election.
Voter turnout raises the question: what constitutes a mandate to serve? Mayor de Blasio, for example, won a second term capturing 66 percent of the vote. But of the nearly 4.6 million active New York City voters, only 1,097,846 voted in the mayoral election and only 726,361 voted for de Blasio. Is 8.5 percent a mandate to serve?
Vote Lacks Horsepower
The problem of getting more people to vote has been grappled with for decades. Marshall McLuhan, the renowned scholar considered to be the father of modern communications and media, famously noted: “American youth attributes more importance to arriving at their driver’s-license age than their voting age.” Former First Lady Michelle Obama also registered her thoughts on why so many people don’t vote, saying, “Elections aren’t just about who votes but who doesn’t.” And President John Kennedy once humorously addressed a reoccurring allegation of how some politicians try to get out the vote when he read a fake telegram from his wealthy, high-powered father at a Gridiron Club dinner, which supposedly said: “Dear Jack, Don’t buy a single vote more than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide!”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “The time is always right to do the right thing.” But we know from experience that some people need that extra push to reach the right direction. And, we need to counter-balance the negative efforts of some states to limit or suppress voting by requiring proof of citizenship and more-stringent verification of voter-ID with measures that would actually make it easier to vote.
There are many things that can be done. For example, the prestigious Brennan Center for Justice recommends “automatic voter registration” (AVR), already approved in 13 states and the District of Columbia, with more states expected to pass the reform soon. AVR is an innovative, cost-saving process that streamlines the way Americans register to vote. AVR makes voter registrants “opt-out” instead of “opt-in,” and voter-registration information is electronically transferred to election officials instead of using paper registration forms. There are additional measures being used or considered in several states, including New York, such as: on-line voting, early voting, same-day registration and voting, expanded reasons for absentee ballots, more polling sites, more poll workers and poll workers with multi-language skills, and a strong student voter-registration drive.
Voting rights in America is no gift. They have been hard-fought for—and the fight still continues. It’s also a slap in the face to those who have led and sacrificed in the battle for equality. But even where that fight has been won, it’s unconscionable not to vote, and ridiculous to expect desired results from an election that you’re not a part of.
It’s reminiscent of what Muhammad Ali once said about waiting for good results on things that matter most to us. He said: “Tolerance and understanding won’t trickle down in our society any more than wealth does.”
And then, there’s the warning that sums up a key reason why voting is so important from political satirist George Carlin: “In America, anyone can become President. That’s the problem.”
Editor’s note: Mr. Floyd is president of Teamsters Local 237.
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