The Consequences of Not Exercising…Your Rights!

Judith Shklar’s argument about the importance of voting in American Citizenship focuses primarily on suffrage as a form of societal standing. She leaves some conclusions undeveloped, particularly with regards to why American voter turnout is and has been low in spite of (or due to) its importance in social standing. I believe finding out a conclusive answer about why this is the case along with producing some remedies to this immense problem should be critical goals of scholars, political scientists, and government officials in the coming future. For evidence that low voter turnout is a genuine, immediate, and significant problem, we need look no further than to the incoming presidential election and the two major-party nominees that have been hoisted upon us all.

A startling column from the New York Times in August illustrated common knowledge in a fresh way; very, very few Americans genuinely support either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. As of now, much of the support for each comes from competing against the other candidate. Yet, both candidates emerged victorious from their respective parties’ primaries. How few supporters does each candidate have? Together, the voting blocs from the primaries for Trump and Clinton combined make up a whopping 9% of all Americans–only 14% of eligible voters in total–and yet this limited number have selected the final two choices for us all.

Less than a third of the total eligible voters this year (~60M) voted in the presidential primary. A slightly bigger third will vote in the general election but didn’t in the primary, and a final third (the largest) won’t vote at all. The implications of these numbers are astounding. If, say, a mere one-third of the voters who will go vote in the general but did not bother to vote in the primary (~73M) had participated in the primary as well–assuming an even split between the parties–then over ten million additional voters would have taken part in each major party’s primary. Considering Hillary and Trump won their primaries with 15 and 13 million votes respectively, this “semi-involved” bloc of  voters ought to recognize the deep reservoir of their own power. If you take just half of those “semi-involved” voters and plop somebody on the ticket they’ll vote in tandem for, you will win–decimate–whichever primary you want to partake in.

This same argument could easily be applied to third parties. It’s often upsetting for third party supporters to hear that their candidate has no chance to win when the straight-up math says otherwise. There are an immense number of voters in this country, and the vast majority of them did not select Trump or Clinton as their choice for nominee. 14% of voters did. That’s it. Almost an equal number of primary voters actually voted for other candidates–Cruz, Bush, Kasich, Rubio, and Sanders. There is nothing even near a consensus on either side with regards to who their nominees should be, and the strength of this consensus is further reduced through the limited participation of the people in general.

Participation, is crucial though. This is the main point I’m digging at. Without participation in the primaries, those 70 million who decided to just wait for the general instead and the 80 million who aren’t voting regardless have no voice. They dislike and distrust the nominees at historic levels. But at the end of the day, their negative opinions do not matter to the politicians or affect the outcome at all, and that is solely a result of their choice not to participate in our system by voting.

I will make a brief note here about the barriers to voting, which I recognize as mostly systematic (and often partisan) in nature, and can accordingly be fixed through more effective implementation. Take our own 2016 presidential preference election (primary) in Arizona. Maricopa County restricted the number of polling places to less than a third of their prior total–from 200 to 60. And last time around in 2012, there was no (extraordinarily) contentious race for the Democratic Primary either, so the cuts to the polling places–in the name of the bureaucratic catch-all, “cutting costs”–is inexcusable. These are the sorts of issues that decrease voter turnout and are wholly preventable. Other issues, like voter ID laws, also impact voter turnout negatively, but the effect is somewhat tiny in the big picture. Good, accessible elections are the bedrock of any nation that considers itself a democracy; those flaws and shortcomings need correction, it goes without saying. The fact of the matter is that the participatory part of our participatory democracy is vitally lacking in vigor. That is an issue which no law has created and no event has catalyzed–it is simply a fact of our collective being. “We” could use a serious attitude adjustment.

Some greats of the past have warned of “too much democracy” or a “tyranny of the majority” running our country into the ground, but a far greater threat has materialized instead: the specter of apathy. A “tyranny of the majority” is impossible when the overall number who vote hardly constitute a majority in the first place. Split them into different teams, and it becomes clear that the tyranny which we fear comes not from the unwashed, uninterested (non-voting) masses–no majority here–but from the motivated minority that do their part actively–through voting–to elevate their favored candidates to victory. Those who fail to cast their votes end up in a group that is irrelevant and voiceless, no matter its size. The only way to counter this trend is with more voting, which means that the “semi-involved” and utterly apathetic among us need to overcome their dark impulse to stay home on (any!) election day. They–We, 86% 0f us eligible voters–missed their/our first chance to stop Trump and Hillary in the primaries, though perhaps they/we can figure out within a month’s time that they/we can stop them yet. If recent electoral history is any indicator, I wouldn’t count on “We” stopping the imminent trainwreck set for November 8.



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7 Responses to The Consequences of Not Exercising…Your Rights!

  1. morgandick says:

    I am particularly intrigued by public participation and civic engagement in the United States so I really enjoyed reading your post. Personally, I am not wholeheartedly convinced by Shklar’s notion that the ability to vote is more crucial to standing than actually voting. Far too many people do not participate in elections at all levels of government. Frankly, American voter-turnout statistics are embarrassing when compared to other democratic nations. While I liked your section about barriers to voting, I think it is important to note that voting is not the only way to be engaged with your government. Writing letters (now I suppose it would be an email!) to Representatives, attending a City Council meeting, or serving on a board or commission are just a few examples of ways average-Joes can be involved in government. I do agree that there are barriers to entry when it comes to voting, I think voter-ID laws, and more topical, the recent Maricopa County primary fiasco are easy scapegoats for people to blame low participation on. Finally, I enjoyed how you brought up the concept on “tyranny of the majority”, but to on today’s political stage it seems like we should rename this concept to be “the apathetic majority”. Great post!

  2. Rebecca Smith says:

    While I agree with your post as a whole, there is another issue I feel should be addressed when discussing low voter turnout in the Presidential Primary: Independent voters! In March of 2014, 37% of Arizona voters were found to be registered as independent, making up a whopping 1.2 million people. This 37% is higher than both the Republican voting base (34%) and the Democratic base (28%). The fact that Arizona continues to operate under closed primaries is astounding, considering the largest portion of the voting population is excluded from participating in the primary unless an independent candidate arises. I find this matter to be particularly aggravating because I am a registered independent voter, and as a result, could not participate in the presidential primary election for lack of a candidate. The independent voting population is growing with each coming generation, and while many states do not operate under a closed primary system, many still do, and the first step in increasing voter turnout in these states should be the elimination of closed primary elections.
    To read more about voter statistics, go to:

  3. nichellechris says:

    Great post, I appreciate your insights! It is interesting to hear from those that do not plan on participating in the 2016 election, as I have found that for the majority of people I have discussed voting with claimed that their primary reason for not participating lies in their dissatisfaction with the selection of candidates. However, I believe what a lot of people fail to see is that they do in fact have the ability to change the pool of candidates. While I do not think this change would come about in a matter that could impact this election or even the next one, increasing the number of citizens that vote would, as I believe, create a much more balanced system that reflects the values of the true majority. As you discussed, right now the two candidates we have at the forefront of this election are reflections of who the minority of citizens, those actually participating in the voting process, have chosen to represent them. However, we must still consider that this minority becomes even smaller when we look at the number of people that vote with their party based on their desire to “outdo” the opposing parties. With that being said, I think it is absurd to see people not going to vote because they are unhappy with the selection of candidates to choose from, when in reality, if they would have voted in the primaries to begin with they wouldn’t be put in a position such as the one we have now.

  4. So I enjoyed your post, you make good points, particularly about the odd shift from a tyranny of the majority, to the tyranny of the majority of registered and active voters. It is quite unfortunate that the moderate many are forced to deal with the results of the partisan few, simply due to voter turnout.

    However, you seem to fundamentally misunderstand the point that Shklar is making in the first place, echoed by morgandick’s comment. Shklar is not proposing that the right to vote is more important than actually voting, rather she is asserting that people value the right to vote more than they value exercising that right. Indeed, within the text she is bewildered at the fact that so many are outraged by abysmal voter turnout when it has been a trend among Americans for generations (although she notes groups recently attaining suffrage were more active voters, but this effect wanes after a generation or two). So really, she would agree with you, more people should vote, and it is a disappointment that they don’t. But, to assert that Shklar saw the right to vote as more important than exercising it is a mistake, they are in fact one and the same in importance.

    As a last comment, it is a bit of a myth that the independent voting bloc has increased, people simply don’t like to label themselves as they used to. Most independents lean right or left and vote party line for the direction they lean, hardly an actual independent voting bloc. Historically, the actual independent vote (not leaning right or left) is lower than heights reached in 2007.

    Info is located here:

  5. amcorell says:

    Yeah this made me mad. Getting reminded about how many people don’t vote in primaries, along with how many primaries are closed, upsets me because, like you said, a fraction of eligible voters determine the choices in the general election. I’ve been on the ground helping with campaigns and party offices, and much of the people involved aren’t like most people. Many of them (not excluding myself) are extremely knowledgeable (albeit many crazy) and motivated about politics to a degree that the average person isn’t, and with so many people not voting, it would strike me at times that these are the people are deciding which candidates voters will decide on. It almost seems like “tyranny of the majority” is just as scary as “tyranny of the motivated minority,” and I think I’d rather hold the masses accountable for terrible politicians rather than politically active groups.

  6. cvazquez131 says:

    Participation in the primary process is something that I believe is incredibly important to our democratic system. That said, I truly think that the major party committees, specifically the Democratic National Committee, prefer the current turnout levels just as they are. The expansion of the Republican base is what lead us to a Donald Trump nomination in the first place. Had it just been the traditional republican base, Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio would surely have won.
    The Democratic National Committee was caught on numerous occasions trying to suppress voters. Debate scheduling, reduced polling locations, and provisional ballots to new voters(who disproportionately favored Sanders). Emails obtained by Wikileaks made it clear who the DNC preferred as their candidate. The democrats base won out, and Clinton was selected.
    Unfortunately, I do not see an easy fix to this problem. It takes a majority of electoral votes to win an election; all a third party candidate could ever do is cause a stalemate, and give the election to the House.

  7. azwoodland says:

    As someone who grew up in a white Suburban neighborhood, with parents who voted every election without fail, I used to find it hard to fathom why people wouldn’t vote. Voting seemed so important. I couldn’t wait until I turned 18 so I could vote and get my “I voted” sticker.

    Note: I now vote by early ballot and don’t get a sticker. 🙁

    But, as I’ve gone through college, I’ve learned more and more why people feel voting is hopeless, or not worth it. It can be easy to feel that your voice doesn’t matter.

    For example, in Global Health I learned the impact policy can make. Policy is a social determinant of your health. For example, downtown Phoenix JUST got the okay to build a grocery store. But what about Southern Phoenix? I’ve been studying a census track (Track 1172, by the I-17) and the people who live in that area have no nearby grocery store. They don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Technically, they live in a food desert.

    A simple policy change, such as allocating funds to build a grocery store or to build a community could completely transform people’s ability to form strong bonds or connect to their community.

    That’s not to say that policies such as food stamps are not great. But, when you only have $10-15 to spend on your food budget, with no access to fresh produce or healthy options, you’re going to buy the cheapest foods. Those are subsidized foods. When you eat all of these subsidized foods, it’s hard not to become overweight. Not to mention, you probably have no time to exercise, there are no places to exercise, and you also have high stress levels from work or family. No wonder so many conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease have higher prevalence in low socioeconomic classes.

    A simple policy change could help make a difference. A grocery store could help to make a difference.

    It’s awful, but it’s the way things have always been, no matter who is in office. For these people who live in the area I study, their conditions have gotten worse over time. If I grew up in this area, instead of the white suburb of Mesa, I too would be thinking, “Why should I vote? Nothing changes. My vote doesn’t matter.”

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