For a nation that sees itself as the pinnacle of democratic self-government, we have some very odd ways of going about proving it.
Elections are the cornerstone for decision-making within any democratic system. Yet, getting many of our citizens to simply cast a vote, let alone campaign for a candidate or otherwise partake more fully in the process, seems unachievable.
The percentage of the voting age population that casts ballots in presidential election years has run consistently well below 60 percent since 1972, according to the American Presidency Project of the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB).
Off-year elections — the ones held for the House and a third of the Senate two years on either side of the presidential years—have garnered less than 40 percent over that time.
The decline is even more acute in off-cycle election years that normally involve only local or state government contests.
According to Governing magazine, a non-partisan journal of state and local government affairs, turnout then has averaged just over 22 percent since 2000.
Smaller local elections, such as for school board or a special district, show even more dismal results.
For example, only 6,737 residents voted in the 2016 Shenendehowa School Board elections held last May, according to Ballotpedia. The district enrolls just under 10,000 students and serves a population of 88,358 people in 36,503 households. That suggests a turnout of less than 10 percent of those eligible to vote.
This deficit of citizen participation is a clearly recognized core problem, but the systemic responses all too often work against any solution.
The Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013 that sharply curtailed the Justice Department’s civil rights oversight of the states’ conduct of elections already has proven counterproductive.
All it has done is increase conflict over election laws and further confuse the already confounding electoral landscape.
Much of that confusion and conflict stems from Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution under which states determine how elections will be conducted as long as they don’t not violate the individual rights that Constitution grants to citizens. While it also gives Congress preemptive authority to regulate federal elections, most of that responsibility has been left with the legislative bodies of the individual states.
Hence, we have disputes over voter fraud and voter suppression, qualifications for voting, proof of citizenship and residency, the process of registering to vote, and the places and times for actually voting — not as ways of easing, encouraging and standardizing participation but as cynical tactics wielded to help ensure the election of one candidate or party over another.
Thankfully, these racially and demographically charged conflicts are not a part of New York’s elections.
But this state has its own process issues centered mostly on unreasonable byzantine and picayune rules designed to frustrate and preemptively defeat those who would challenge the primacy of the two main parties and the incumbency of those holding public office.
None of this bespeaks respect for democratic ideals, though every such effort is accompanied by flowery language pledging undying devotion to them.
Others do it better
Our unmerited self-congratulatory notion of ourselves notwithstanding, many democratic countries demonstrate a truer commitment.
Australia’s mandatory voting requirement requires the process to be universally consistent and straightforward. Canada and the United Kingdom vest authority in professional non-partisan public entities the sole responsibilities of which are the proper and impartial conduct of elections.
Nothing prevents this state and the other 49 from doing the same. Nor is Congress prevented from prescribing the same approach for all federal elections.
Doing so, though, would entail a wholesale virtuous shift toward running the electoral system for the benefit of the citizen/voter over that of “the powers that be” as it is now.
Money also presents a problem here in a way that’s foreign to other democracies. The Supreme Court’s interpretation of money as speech reinforced by its Citizens United decision combined to erect a formidable barrier to reform that can be overcome only by a constitutional amendment.
Now there is the new prospect of private profit being elevated over safeguarding electoral system integrity.
A company named VoteCastr is intending to do “real-time” reports on election results throughout Election Day breaking the long respected practice of news organizations withholding their polling research until actual voting is over. Does this advance the election process in any way? Would the court, if asked, ultimately rule for money here, too?
The mirror doesn’t lie
In the end, though, all of this is just a convenient excuse. Human nature is expert at rationalizing its own behavior. We freely give ourselves alibis that usually point away from our selves.
However, if elections are the cornerstone of democratic self-government, then it is the voters who are its foundation. So, if we are dissatisfied with the way it operates and the results we are getting, who is it that’s really to blame?
Sitting at home in self-satisfied protest isn’t the solution to all this.
On the contrary, it’s the only reason it is able to persist.
John Figliozzi of Halfmoon is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.