Around election time, pundits begin to worry about low voter turnout. So they write newspaper articles recommending all kinds of methods for simplifying the voting process: early voting, same day registration,voting by computer and other clever ways of streamlining the electoral process.
But that is, of course, barking up the wrong tree. The Founders were very explicit about the voting process and its functions. Citizens were to vote in order to select the best representatives: men and women who were best informed, persons of integrity devoted not to partisan interests but to the good of all the citizens. That is how James Madison described the electoral process in Paper 10 of The Federalist Papers. Today the voting process has become completely perverted. Our congressional leaders often have mediocre minds excelling only in their intense partisanship. They are not looking for what is good for all; they are focused on their private interests, namely getting reelected. Elections today are about winning, not about selecting the best leaders. Voters know this and therefore do not bother to vote.
Elected officials are supposed to represent the interests and thinking of voters in their districts. If that were their goal, they would need to spend a good deal of time conversing with those voters to become thoroughly acquainted with the citizens' beliefs and opinions about national and local affairs. But since getting elected is so very expensive, Congresspersons are instead most interested in attracting money from very rich donors. With very few exceptions your representative in Congress is interested in financial donors before they care about what the majority of us, the people with little money, think.
This is no secret. Is it a surprise that Joe Citizen and Jane Citizen are not interested in electing anyone because whoever wins, that representative will not be interested in what Joe and Jane think?
We often say that in our democracy citizens control the actions of the government by electing one representative rather than another. That makes it look as if in elections policy issues decide who is chosen to represent a district.
But with 30 second television ads being a major means of communicating with voters, do policy issues get discussed? If instead of candidate forums we had public conversations between voters and citizens in which people could speak openly about what they think, the candidate would get a better idea of what people—as opposed to billionaires financing the election—think about. The participants and audience for these public discussions would get a better view of different policy disagreements. Everyone would learn. From the existing televised candidate forum I learn who is good-looking and who is not, who is the quickest on the draw in a debate. I learn very little about the issues.
Why should I participate in a sporting event where winners and losers are not important to me, or in a quasi-TV quiz show when what actually really matters to me is what the government will do and whether it will be swayed by what I need, what I think, and what I hope for. But political candidates are not interested in that.
Finally why should I vote if the candidates treat me with open contempt? These days the mail brings a lot of campaign literature. Everyone knows that these mailings give a one- sided view of the problems the country faces. They are misleading and tend to misrepresent the positions of candidates as well as of their opponents. They are meant to manipulate voters. The writers of electioneering material make used care salesmen look like persons of exemplary integrity. They make no bones about not respecting voters. Why should I vote for people who look down on me?
What is the message here? Campaign literature is written by folks who believe that you can persuade voters of any nonsense as long as you repeat it often and loud enough. Campaign literature treats citizens as gullible fools. That is hardly designed to make them want to vote.
Having transformed political campaigns into something like a football or baseball game, our political leaders should not be surprised if many citizens show disinterest. Since elections have stopped being opportunities for citizens to debate difficult policy issues and to be heard by their elected representatives, why should they participate?
Many people will get hurt if the arch conservatives win many elections. Think of the future of gay rights, health care for the middle class and the poor, further measures to impoverish working people, or think about fighting global warming. However perverted, the outcome of the electoral process sometimes makes a difference. But it is very hard to predict when that will happen. Unfortunately being an apathetic voter makes a lot of sense, much of the time.