In the last presidential election, only 61.8 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. Unsurprisingly, the 2014 midterms were even worse, with just 36.4 percent of eligible citizens voting – the worst turnout in any election cycle since World War II.
Those are the kind of numbers which make civic advocates despair.
The Editorial Board of the New York Times reported that the low turnout “was bad for Democrats, but it was even worse for democracy.” The Times went on to bemoan the causes of the record-low turnout: “apathy, anger and frustration at the relentlessly negative tone of the campaigns.”
But we should be wary of correlating increased voter turnout with increased civic health – voting is an important act in a healthy democracy, but a turn out rate is not enough to diagnose a civic ailment.
In Power and Powerlessness, John Gaventa develops a power-powerlessness model of voting.
In a coal mining valley of Appalachia, Gaventa is struck by how local elections are always battles between elites which never address or engage the poor, working people of the community:
Though intensely fought, the conflict which emerges into the local political arena is rarely substantive compared with what could emerge. The candidates do not raise questions potentially challenging to either Company or courthouse – such as why the locally derived wealth is not redistributed through taxation.
Gaventa documents how both public and private (eg, voting) challenges to existing power structures are forcefully shut down by those in power. Over time, these power structures become stronger and the fear of reprisal becomes ingrained. Those without power exhibit repeated behavior which would be perplexing to an outsider.
In one Company town, turnout rates would get as high as 100%. Voting day was a special day, where folks would dress up to participate. Then they’d go to to the ballot box and vote unanimously for the company man – a man who was actively engaged in the oppression of the people voting for him.
While “a host of studies in political science argue that the poor may not participate or may not participate effectively, because of low income, poor education, lack of information, and other factors of a socio-economic state scale,” Gaventa draws a different conclusion:
Factors such as low income, low education and low status may, in fact, be reflections of a common index of ‘vulnerability’ or social and economic dependency of a non-elite upon an elite. Through processes of coercive power, those most likely to challenge inequalities may be prevented from challenge…Over time, there may develop a routine of non-conflict within and about local politics – a routine which may, to the observer, appear as a fatalism found in ‘backwardness.’ As regards to voting…the phenomenon would be better understood as a product of power relations, such that actions of challenge – and even, over time, conceptions of such actions – by the powerless against the powerful become organized out the political milieu.
All of this is not to say that we shouldn’t talk about voting, but voting is far from enough. When we talk about voting, we should talk about power – and not just the desperate claim that one person’s vote has the power to make a difference. We should talk about how structures of power shape our very approach to voting.
In one talk at Frontiers of Democracy last week, Denise Merrill, Connecticut’s Secretary of the State, said that the number one reason people give for not voting is that no one asked them.
While perhaps we shouldn’t feel the need to send an engraved invitation to every member of our democracy inviting them to participate in it, the reality is…we do.
When I see low voting rates, I don’t see a people who are too apathetic or too stupid to vote, I see a people who have been taught – explicitly and implicitly – that they have no agency in this world. That their voices and their thoughts have no value.
And when we talk about voting, too often we reinforce this sense – after all, if one vote out of 3 million is all the power you have…that’s just a reminder of just how powerless you are