The 2016 election was historic for a number of reasons, one of which was the fact that voter turnout hit a 20-year low. While pundits have spent the year since the election analyzing why people voted the way they did, little oxygen has been given to why such a huge number of eligible voters—about 43 percent—chose not to vote at all.
Ahead of the 2012 election, filmmaker Errol Morris created an Op-Doc video for the New York Times in which he asked young people specifically about the merits of voting. Morris was curious to learn why the arguments against voting were so persuasive to some 50 percent of young Americans.
They told me that many of the issues they care about — climate change, civil rights, the war on drugs, immigration, prison reform — are not discussed by Democrats or Republicans. That there is such a gulf between what candidates say they will do, and what they do, that it’s impossible to trust anyone. That apathy is actually supported by the evidence.
Lack of enthusiasm runs high among young people, many of whom do not appear to believe that their vote actually matters.
Voting is a leap of faith. Calling it a civic duty is not enough. Either you believe that the system is both changeable and worth changing, or you don’t — and most new voters are not convinced.
Leading up to the 2016 election, there was a swarm of energy urging people to vote. Adam Grant of the New York Times argues the importance of voting should not be diminished as unimportant or inconsequential. People fought and died for the right to live in a democracy, and choosing not to participate has consequences.
To secure the right to vote, Americans have been beaten, jailed and tortured. Some even died. Yet in the 2012 presidential election, less than 54 percent of the eligible population turned out to vote.
Grant cites research from University of Chicago public policy professor Anthony Fowler, who studied the effects mandatory voting had in Australia. The results found the compulsory increased voter turnout made a huge difference in who was elected and the policies that were enacted.
“Democracies with voluntary voting do not represent the preferences of all citizens,” he concluded. “Increased voter turnout can dramatically alter election outcomes and resulting public policies.”
Celebrities created viral videos in an attempt to remind people of the importance of voting and persuade them to head to the polls.
Hollywood’s biggest stars are doing whatever they can to ensure people actually cast their ballots—many in the tried-and-true format of the almighty public-service announcement. We’re living in viral times, though. A P.S.A. has to be more than an A-lister standing in front of a blank screen offering an impassioned plea for Americans to do their civic duty in the 2016 election. Celebrity P.S.A.s need to go big or go home; go viral or go nowhere.
But not everyone insists voting is an obligation. Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe argues the freedom not to vote is perfectly legitimate.
Every citizen has the right to vote, but no citizen is obliged to. That isn’t just a truism. As with every other fundamental civic liberty, the freedom to vote incorporates the freedom not to vote.
He also maintains abstaining from voting when disillusioned with the choices is itself a rational choice that could be made by a politically-engaged citizen.
Besides, refusing to vote can also be an affirmative political choice. When candidates are odious, when their campaigns traffic in character-assassination, when election ads are no more than shameless pandering, declining to pull the lever for any of them might well be the response of an engaged and rational voter.
And there has been a history of skepticism in participating in a political system that many view as unfair.
But Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post argues non-voters ultimately determined the 2016 election by not participating. Those who could have voted but chose not to greatly outnumbered those who voted for Clinton, Trump or a third-party candidate.
Tens of millions of Americans who could vote nevertheless decide not to. If you believe that high participation rates are a sign of a healthy democracy, this is a huge problem.