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Refocusing on Civics

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Andrew Vaz
October 1,2014

voting-sheetThis month had a historic election in Scotland; a referendum on whether the Celtic nation was interested in separating from the United Kingdom. Despite the efforts of the First Minister Alex Salmond and his separatist faction, the result of that vote was in favor of the former British Empire staying intact. The “No” side won the election with 2,001,926 votes over 1,617,989 for “Yes.” Those against the referendum held 55 percent of the vote whereas those in favor of the referendum held 45 percent. The participation of the Scottish community was quite exceptional. News reports indicated a record turnout at most polling stations across the country. Such active civic engagement should be the envy of the rest of democratic world; however, most countries do not even have modest numbers during routine election years.

In particular, the United States is one democratic nation that has a problem with voter turnout. The world’s greatest democracy holds elections in a four-year cycle at the federal, state, and local levels. It has been suggested that at the presidential level, voter turnout has ranged between 49 to 63 percent, making it the lowest in the free world. According to Jason Chandler, Professor of Political Science at Hunter College in New York, U.S. voter turnout lags behind other western democracies by about 10 to 15 percent. This has to do with many factors, including the American system of representation, wide socioeconomic and demographic variations and the way political parties and candidates engage voters.

American System of Representation

The United States electoral system is described as a single-member plurality. While citizens vote for the members of that party, they don’t for the party itself. The single-member plurality system is also referred to as the “first-past-the-post” approach: the candidate wins the election by receiving the most votes compared to the other candidates. It is mostly used for legislative contests, but it can have negative effects on representation as candidates who receive the majority of the ballots win the right to represent all constituents of that region. What that means is the votes that the losing candidates maintained are all squandered. This can be viewed as unfair since a candidate can win a district even with 49.9% of the vote and leave many voters feeling unrepresented. This is where apathy in the electoral process begins to develop as voters would then put their ballot to the candidate viewed as the “lesser of two evils.” Also, if the voter doesn’t support either candidate, they will not participate in the electoral process altogether. Thus, the American system of representation can be largely viewed as unrepresentative of its population.
Socioeconomic and Demographic Variation

Since 2008, politicians have campaigned on issues revolving around the economy and people’s emotions regarding the unclear future of the U.S. marketplace. Before the 2008 election, the majority of voters were affluent members of the country. Today, voters from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are becoming more involved in the democratic process.

What is happening, however, is quite remarkable. With the election of the nation’s first African-American president, voters of the lowest sociology-economic status seem to be lending their support to candidates that stand by policies that are against their interests (for example, tax breaks for the richest 1%). Since this historical election, analysts have also seen a rise of voters of different demographics. The percentage of visible minorities (African-American, Hispanic, women, etc.) have risen between the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. However, the rate for Caucasian males has sharply declined. This can be seen in areas such as the Southern United States, where traditionally high voter involvement now shows decline.

While many will attribute the decline of voter participation to apathy, there is another move at play. The state legislatures are passing laws that suppress voters. North Carolina has restricted access to voters who don’t present government-issued identification or who may vote on a particular advance voting day (for example, African-American church groups who vote on the Sunday before the election that week). Voter suppression laws restrict the elderly and visible minorities, whom many analysts believe would support candidates of the opposite party of the incumbent, which is a blatant mistrust of power and a factor behind the low turnout at the polls.

How ballot-seekers engage voters

Candidates usually reach out to voters on campaign trails by holding events in small towns and debating live on television. Recently, laws have been passed that now make reaching out to voters irrelevant. The Citizens United decision eliminated the ban on corporations from making independent contributions to candidates. This now gives power to those ballot-seekers who rely on rich donors to spend money on their campaigns in order to help defeat their opponents. What this has done is eliminated much of the need for politicians to reach voters for their support, but instead allowed them to “buy their vote.”

Refocusing on teaching civics: eliminate voter apathy

We have to acknowledge that apathy in politics only exist because people believe their voice doesn’t matter. Educating the public about elections becomes imperative. As stated earlier, there is a segment of voters (10 to 15 percent) who feel alienated from politics because of poor representation. So there must be changes.

First, the Supreme Court must overturn the Citizens United ruling and protect voting rights from suppression. Taking ‘money out of politics’ will improve democracy by making politicians campaign on the merits of their platform and not how much money they can spend. Next, Congress must work towards revising the voting system to allow for seats to be truly representative of their district populations. This means erasing gerrymandered districts that allow certain candidates to win based on the population in that area who are registered to that candidate’s party. Finally, we as citizens must be willing to educate our children and ourselves on the electoral process. 

Author: Andrew R Vaz, M.S., M.P.A. is a doctoral student in Public Policy and Administration program at Walden University. He is a graduate of the Master of Science in Criminal Justice and Master of Public Administration double master’s program at Florida International University. He can be reached at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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