Diagnosing Democracy’s Illness

A few days ago, I was in a small meeting devoted to civic education. Attendees included some very smart, very savvy individuals, all of whom were veterans of the longstanding effort to increase civic knowledge and civic literacy. But when the individual who had convened this particular group asked what should have been a simple question, we were all stumped.

The question was: why are so many Americans uninterested in voting?

She might as well have asked why so many Americans are uninterested in democracy.

There were, as always, several theories: some of us felt that disinterest was due to a lack of understanding of what government does, and the multiple ways in which its operations affect our daily lives. Others noted that–for the millions of people barely scraping by–the daily struggle for survival leaves little time or energy for political involvement.

Perhaps the culprit is the culture, and the distractions provided by entertainment and celebrity. Or perhaps there’s something to my longtime theory that  gerrymandering has produced so many “safe” seats, it has convinced significant numbers of citizens that their votes won’t count, so why bother? It’s all rigged against them anyway, and taking time to inform oneself and cast a ballot would simply be time spent doing a useless thing.

Of course, even people who would otherwise vote continue to encounter practical barriers to exercise of the franchise. America makes it hard to vote, and Indiana is among the worst: our polls close earlier than those of all but one other state.

In 2020, FiveThirtyEight.com considered the question.

In any given election, between 35 and 60 percent of eligible voters don’t cast a ballot. It’s not that hard to understand why. Our system doesn’t make it particularly easy to vote, and the decision to carve out a few hours to cast a ballot requires a sense of motivation that’s hard for some Americans to muster every two or four years — enthusiasm about the candidates, belief in the importance of voting itself, a sense that anything can change as the result of a single vote.

The site conducted a poll, and found that the answer to the question who votes — and who doesn’t — is complex, and that most Americans don’t fall neatly into any one category.

Of the 8,000-plus people we polled, we were able to match nearly 6,000 to their voting history. We analyzed the views of the respondents in that slightly smaller group, and found that they fell into three broad groups: 1) people who almost always vote; 2) people who sometimes vote; and 3) people who rarely or never vote. People who sometimes vote were a plurality of the group (44 percent), while 31 percent nearly always cast a ballot and just 25 percent almost never vote….there weren’t huge differences between people who vote almost all the time and those who vote less consistently. Yes, those who voted more regularly were higher income, more educated, more likely to be white and more likely to identify with one of the two political parties, but those who only vote some of the time were also fairly highly educated and white, and not overwhelmingly young. There were much bigger differences between people who sometimes vote and those who almost never vote.

Nonvoters were more likely to have lower incomes; to be young; to have lower levels of education; and to say they don’t belong to either political party, which are all traits that square with what we know about people less likely to engage with the political system.

Getting people to the polls is pretty daunting–especially in Indiana, which routinely ranks at the bottom for measures of engagement and turnout. But the small contingent of civic educators continues to try…

Among that contingent is Bill Moreau, who established the Indiana Citizen a couple of years ago. It’s sort of a one-stop shop for electoral information –how to register, where to vote, and other practical information–but also a place to find the sorts of nonpartisan reporting that allows readers to cast an informed vote. What is Indiana’s legislature doing now, and why? Why can’t Hoosiers get redistricting reforms passed? How will this year’s gerrymandering affect me? Who’s running for what, and what are their policy proposals?

We used to turn to local newspapers for this sort of coverage, but–as I constantly complain–the pathetic remnants of those papers no longer provide the coverage that a democratic polity requires. The Indiana Citizen is among the various credible websites trying to fill the gap left by what we now call “the legacy press”–but of course, in order to fill that gap, people need to know it’s there–and that’s a significant barrier to overcome.

If you are a Hoosier, check it out. Tell your friends. And vote.

 

35 thoughts on “Diagnosing Democracy’s Illness

  1. What’s odd is why we even use “democracy” to describe the USA. At best, it’s a flawed democracy, according to the democracy index.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index

    Just because our corporate-owned media doesn’t call corporate campaign contributions bribes doesn’t mean they aren’t bribes. In fully-functioning democracy, bribing a public official is against the law. Not only can we bribe public officials in the USA, but they are also auctioned off.

    For those looking to expand their thinking, try One Dimensional Man: 😉

    “Marcuse strongly criticizes consumerism and modern “industrial society”, which he claims is a form of social control. Marcuse argues that while the system we live in may claim to be democratic, it is actually totalitarian. A form of technological rationality has imposed itself on every aspect of culture and public life and has become hegemonic. Our identification with this hegemonic ideology of modern industrial society, this ideology does not represent a form of “false-conscious”, but rather has succeeded in becoming reality.

    Modern industrial societies have furthermore created an “affluent society”, which in increasing comfort have disguised the exploitative nature of the system, and have therefore strengthened means of domination and control. Modern “affluent society” therefore limits opportunities for political revolution against capitalism.

    Marcuse argues that a small number of individuals are empowered to dictate our perceptions of freedom by providing us with opportunities to buy our happiness in modern consumer societies. [3] In this state of “unfreedom”,[4] consumers act irrationally by working more than they are required to in order to fulfill actual basic needs, by ignoring the psychologically destructive effects, by ignoring the waste and environmental damage it causes, and by searching for social connection through material items.[5]”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-Dimensional_Man

  2. My county in northern Indiana has been pointed as the third most red county in the state. As a member of the county election board I received copies of the upcoming Primary ballots. There is one contested race out of three people running for office on the D ticket. The R ticket has one person running for every office with no contested races. There really is no reason for anyone to bother taking time out of their day to vote in this Primary.

  3. I became active in politics in the middle 1980s. Then to register to vote, you had to find a duly appointed registrar (of which I was one) to sign you up to vote. Or you had to go to the courthouse. Those were your choices. When you voted, you had to show up at your precinct (and only your precinct) between 6 am and 6 pm on Election Day. No early voting. No vote centers.

    Now you can register by printing off a form at home and mailing it in. You can vote early. You can vote at vote centers. If you can’t make it on Election Day – no problem…just cast an absentee ballot.

    As far as those “obstacles” to voting, the fact is it is easier to register and vote than it has ever been, including in this state. Our registration numbers are through the roof. Many Indiana counties have registration rates of 90%, some near 100%. Marion County at one point was at 105% registration.

    There is no proof that the left’s boogeyman, i.e. the photo ID requirement, has slowed down people voting at all. People point to lower turnout rates, but that’s because our voting rolls are filled with people who have died and people who have moved and are registered at multiple locations. Motor Voter Law eliminated automatic purges for people who didn’t vote a single time in a four year cycle and made it very difficult (and expensive) to clear out the deceased and moved voters from the rolls. (Indiana historically is one of the worst states in terms of cleaning up the voter registration lists.) Our registration rates appear to be low because of artificially inflated voter registration lists.. But when you compare the number of people who vote versus the adult age population (the only valid way of measuring electoral participation, Indiana has not seen a decline in turnout over the past few decades.

    People complain about our 6 pm closing time of our polls. But have you ever try to recruit people to work on Election Day? Well, I have and it’s horrible.. Telling them they have to stay from 6 am until 8 pm or 9 pm would cause us to lose even more poll workers. And why do the polls need to be open until 8 or 9, when we’ve developed all these early voting options, options to vote at vote centers outside one’s precinct, etc? And you can always vote absentee if you’re not here.

    If you don’t get registered and vote with today’s multiple options, it’s not because of the “obstacles,” it’s because you’re not trying. When asked to provide proof of these people who have not been able to cast a ballot because of “obstacles,” all you get are anecdotes.

    At some point, we have to accept that some people don’t vote because they’re simply not interested in voting. In America, we have the right to vote. But we also have the right not to vote.

  4. “Our registration rates appear to be low because of artificially inflated voter registration lists.

    Correction. I meant to say “Our TURNOUT rates…”

  5. Perhaps we should have a national database for registration. New registration forms could ask if you are currently registered in another state and if you are the database update would automatically delete your previous registration. Looking for solutions is the best way to go about fixing our democracy.

  6. I’d love to meet your small group devoted to civic education. The explanations given for why people don’t vote, seem to be only symptoms of a more fundamental root cause. For example, what does Steve Bannon mean when he says, “Flood the (information) zone with shit.”

    I’ve given up voting because my whole region is dominated by a centralized propaganda machine. People are educated to think they can’t know any truth except the truth they are told by the nationalized news media, and they repeat that to each other over and over: confirmation bias. Only one of several biases that are being exploited by a cabal of the very wealthy. People don’t even suspect they are being exploited. When they rise up against the propaganda machine, I’ll be there. But first they have to admit that there is a self-confirming propaganda machine.

  7. A lack of trust in the election system; how many millions of Americans are still wondering if their votes were even counted when George W and “The Donald” were appointed rather than elected by the public. George W’s brother Jeb was Governor of Florida where the only recount was done and “The Donald” lost the public vote and was appointed by the Electoral College. Both the Electoral College and the filibuster need to be done away with; questionable at their inception and the reasoning behind both, when a Senator can read a Dr. Seuss book to fill up the time and be considered as support for his party’s action, or inaction, it’s time to act on major changes in the basic system.

    The appointee system in the USPS is another area which requires drastic change. Like Mitch Daniels’ board appointments at Purdue University resulting in his appointment by that board as President of the University; Trump’s appointment of board members who approved DeJoy’s appointment to destroy the entire postal system make obsolete the Absentee Ballot system remains more than a year after his election loss.

    “Getting people to the polls is pretty daunting…” The need to change polling places due to the Pandemic leaves many of us not knowing from election to election where our polling place is or if Absentee Ballots will be allowed. We have fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole and haven’t yet “woke” to the reality of conditions.

  8. Todd, I’m with you today. The unbridled greed of our economic system has destroyed what use to pass for a democratic republic. How can anyone defend this system as it has evolved when you honestly look at the state of this country today.

  9. Nancy, I think you just described 80-85 of Indiana’s 92 counties, ours (also in the North) included.

    Paul is partially right. I signed up to work the polls once and it required that I get up at 4:30AM and I finally left the county courthouse at 10:30PM by the time they validated our ballot machine counts. The next year I asked if I could do 1/2 day as I simply cannot spend that much time on my feet but I was told no.

    Voting processes should be vastly simplified…and FAR less dependent on “everyone showing up between X &Y on one day”. The number and locations of polling places should be based on population and ease of access. I recall in the last election there was one alternate location for voters of Marion County but SIX of them in Hamilton County with 1/5 the population. That’s just racist voter suppression pure and simple.

    It’s never been clear to me how anyone can argue that a state constitution and state laws can take precedent over the US Constitution after the Civil War and the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments. But here we are.

  10. What’s an anecdote worth? I was a Dem PC more than 2 decades. We voted at Hinkle Field House. Each morning “Henry” came at 5:50 am, for years. Our turnout was mediocre. Then came 2008. It was raining. Henry was joined by multitudes, beginning before 5:30. We opened the doors so voters could come in out of the downpour. They filed in, maintaining the order in which they arrived. It was a glorious event. So many voters they filled out their ballots sitting on benches, chairs, the floor. 2008 – HOPE! Obama brought out the populace.

    Who can duplicate his example?

  11. Paul Ogden has a habit of stating His version of statistics. He likes to claim he knows the actual numbers and percentages, yet always fails to include verifiable sources of those stats. He often makes it clear that he chooses to live in an information bubble that suits his opinion.

    He should not group all citizens in Indiana into his self-created stats. His comment on today’s blog makes it clear to me that he has no clue about why this state actually does have one of the lowest turnout rates for voters.

    Paul – I am daring you to cite the sources of information that you so confidently claim to be the truth.

  12. Paul consistently is the ONLY person on this blog who brings any sort of real objective perspective to the issues stated. Then you all attack him when he counters your version of “truth” .
    I rarely read this blog anymore because it’s just a bubble of “leftist” news from a bunch of angry people who know nothing about true “christians” or conservatives.
    Kudos Paul for trying to be different.

  13. The League of Women Voters also provides voter information via Vote411.org. Local Leagues submit questions to candidates, who in turn enter their responses into the website so that the answer appear without editing from the LWV. Voter information about registration deadlines and other facets of voting are also included.

  14. In my nearly five years of work with CommonGoodGoverning, it is pretty clear that that a key reason why people don’t vote is that they do not think their vote matters to make their lives better. They see massive evidence at every level of government that “pols” listen to and vote/act by lobbyists and donors. Our polarization simply adds the “cherry on top” of party over country and/or ideology over country. Why vote?

  15. becky – WOW! Just WOW! You just defended a commenter that never cites the sources for the stats that he claims and you claimed that he is the only person that brings a real objective perspective. That is so laughable. You sound like someone that also prefers to live inside a fact-free info bubble.
    Also laughable is your claim that this blog is just a bubble of angry people who know nothing about true Christians. You just made your own Angry statement while accusing others of being angry. I sure wouldn’t want to be known as one of your delusional group of fake Christians.

  16. I often hear from friends that “all politicians are crooked”. While I have heard that all of my life, it seems that I do more so nowadays. My sense is that we’ve been collectively worn down by politics. I know that I get sick of erasing hundreds of emails every single day trying to turn off Niagara Falls. We’re worn down by lying. We’re worn down by scandal both real and manufactured.

    Getting people not to vote is also a focus of Republican politicians, policy and propaganda. When people vote they vote for their own self interests but when they don’t Republicans win.

    Bottom line is that getting people not to vote has become a business that sometimes wins the competition with the charity of getting people to the polls.

    We could of course vote in politicians who promise to close the anti-voting business by campaign finance reform but that requires voters. The people who manage that business though know that too.

  17. Nancy, if you see this blog as a “Leftist” item, and have to throw in a comment about religion, I’m just as glad not to see anything else your
    apparently, black and white mind has to spout.
    “One Dimensional Man” is now on my reading list, thanks. I first, now, have to get through Hannah Arendt’s “The Roots of Totalitarianism.”
    I’m in Floradidia, and I know that the system, here, is rigged, but I’m not going to not vote against DeSantis!!

  18. I have often wondered if Indiana’s low voter turnout is the result of cluttered and unpurged voter registration rolls, but it seems nobody in either party is willing to find out or make meaningful changes without trying to screw the other guy.

    I will have to tell you as a person that votes consistently, it is really discouraging. In this day in age when the barrier to getting published and getting the word out, is to have a working email address, I am appalled at the candidates at every level that will not even bother to publish a platform or a position statement. If they do put something out there it is something nonsensical that has nothing to do with the job like a county treasure saying they are against gun control or abortion. The other problem is that as soon as something “official” gets published it gives your opponents an attack point. Maybe there is some logic in a fascist party to not have a platform?

    The league of women voters website is pretty good for some of the statewide offices, but more often than not it says, “Candidate did not respond”, or if they did, they repeat the same garbage that they published on the website.

    Living in a safely gerrymandered Democratic district, I often vote in the Republican Primaries because there are no choices on the Democrat side, and sometimes there may be worthy candidates on the Republican side, but who would know? Most of the time they are just warm bodies just fill in the blanks because they don’t bother to publish anything at all!

    I would love to see non-partisan redistricting, motor voter registration, and ranked order voting, but I also wish somebody would give me a million dollars. Until both parties can agree that democracy needs to be the winner, it’s just not going to happen.

  19. Nobody has mentioned voting by mail or email, like I do. Easiest way to vote ever.

    Over here in the truest form of Democracy, low voter turnout is a problem too. They have referendums 4 times a year. The multiple parties send platform information to every household by snail mail 30 days before the election or referendum. It’s required by law. Anyone can vote via mail. You must be a citizen to receive a ballot. They have voting on Sunday and have results by the evening news that day. They also have national ID cards and registration requirements that have to be performed every time you move. The national ID keeps track of your address, employer, insurance, taxes and probably something else I forgot. There are four national languages allowed so you can request a ballot in your chosen language.

    The reasons I didn’t vote between 1980 and 2008 was that I believed every politician was a crook, thanks Nixon. Then money from corporations was more important than voters and that living in a red state meant that my vote wouldn’t count anyway because of the gerrymandering and lousy choices of candidates, why bother? The electoral college stole two Ds from the White House, Gore and Hillary.

    Who has time for politics anyway? Most of us are just trying to survive. If you don’t get civics in grade school and high school or shop or auto mechanics than blame the education system for the apathy.

    Obama got me interested because he was different, wasn’t a white guy and has a vision I could relate too. Now, I’m a junkie. At least I’m paying attention because I’m retired and bored too.

    I finished the book The 1619 Project today. I couldn’t put it down.

  20. So much for the prohibition of ad hominem attacks in the comment section of this blog. As you have pointed out before Sheila, we have all been infected by the vitriol virus on both extremes of the political continuum. It seems that vitriol is becoming an epidemic on the comments section of this blog. I have read many thoughtful comments here in the past. However, I have enough of my own anger about current events whittling away at my soul. I certainly do not need to read about the anger of others who comment on this blog. I’ll forgo the comment section now and continue reading your thoughtful commentary and distillation of the news and views of other opinion writers on current events.

  21. I have had one more thought about my comment. Sheila just posted yesterday about what her guidelines for comments are for this blog. Here is the Oxford dictionary definition of ad hominem: of an argument or reaction) directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining.
    “vicious ad hominem attacks” To my mind several of the comments today fit that definition. My opinion is that those who attacked others personally today disrespected not only the subjects of their posts but also Sheila and those of us who consistently refrain from this behavior.

  22. Lester beat me to it. I think that’s exactly right: many think voting is pointless. And it’s very difficult to argue against that, given the filibuster has broken your politics such that it’s pretty much impossible to do ANYTHING in Congress.

  23. Guess what NANCY, I’m NOT the one who is angry.
    Once again, Paul just showed who rises to the level of civility and who doesn’t.

  24. Paul, the voter ID issue is not about turnout. The issue is that the people most likely to NOT have a driver’s license (for example, as it’s the most common ID used) are younger people, particularly younger people in cities (with transit), and older people, often older people of colour. The issue is that this policy is clearly targeted at segments that are more likely to vote Democrat.

    A simple solution is to make sure that every person receives a governmental ID when they turn 18, and this ID can be used for voting. In Canada, we recently turned our “Care Card”, which every person gets and is used to manage them in our healthcare system, into a photo ID that can be used in place of a driver’s license.

    Basically, I think you are approaching this issue from the wrong direction. People should not have to TRY hard to vote. Your society should be encouraging everyone to vote and making it as easy as possible.

    In Canada, mail is delivered warning about upcoming elections and where to vote. Typically, the location is the local elementary school, so it’s walking distance from your home. Once there, it generally takes less than 15 minutes to vote. In preparation, every person gets an ID when they are eligible. Registering is as easy as ticking a box on your tax forms. There are commercials on TV and the internet encouraging people to participate. There are multiple solutions to the various ID/voting location/registration “problems”, including online help and toll-free numbers. Basically, the ones WORKING HARD around voting should be the government, not the people.

  25. Maybe it’ll be clearer if I add this…

    I have no issue with requiring an ID to vote. However, if you introduce legislation suddenly requiring an ID but don’t also ensure that everyone will have a valid ID, then you are clearly just messing with those people who may not have the required ID. If those legislators really wanted safe and fair elections for ALL, they’d provide a comprehensive solution not just an impediment to some segments of the population.

  26. I appreciate the work of Indiana Citizen but would also like to give a “shout out” to VOTE411 from the League of Women Voters. This site provides all voting related information, including a survey of local political candidates. Competitors give their response to identical questions on issues appropriate to the offices they seek.

  27. Indiana counties are mostly one party. Owen County has flipped hard red in the last 20 years. The rural counties have moved to the right enough what few Democrats are left are too old or think it’s a lost cause.

  28. OK – two small comments for Paul, who I’ve known since I ran for office and he was kind enough to have me on his podcast — and again after that –

    I have lived in six states. Indiana makes it more difficult to vote than the other five I have lived in. Just an observation.
    John H is correct – we should be making voting as easy as possible.
    Second – do you really believe that the “intent” of all of these new voting laws that have been passed by Republican legislatures is to fill some great need to correct the way we elect people to office? Effective or not, their “intent” was to tilt the playing field.

    As Pete, noted, the “all politicians are crooks” meme is an old one. There also was the old “we need divided government to protect us from harm” – not meant as compromise, but as a desire for gridlock. Long before computer-optimized gerrymandering was here, people still were expressing the view that “it doesn’t matter who I elect, they are all the same.”

    Then there was that great podcast by the Freakonomics guys where they concluded that since elections weren’t usually decided by one vote, one vote doesn’t matter, and therefore, nobody should bother to vote.

  29. I think that one reason for younger people not voting is rather obvious, they are much more interested in social media and constantly being in touch with each other, and just don’t have the time or mental fortitude to decide for whom to vote. If their lifeline, their phone, is not in their hands they are lost. Those of us who grew up in the ’40s, ’50s learned and absorbed a great deal more about how our country is run than the very disinterested “me” society of today.

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