by Barry Edelson
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Elections Without Voters

Those who do not vote have no advantage
over those who cannot


The Illusion


In the 1990s television series "I'll Fly Away", there is a scene in which a black woman, played by Regina Taylor, votes for the very first time. The setting is a Southern town in the late 1950s, when the civil rights movement was gathering steam. Taylor plays Lilly Harper, a maid working for a white lawyer, who is played by Sam Waterston. [The program only ran for two seasons on NBC but immediately achieved a bit of a cult following, prompting PBS to air a two-hour film sequel to the series after it had been cancelled, a rare distinction in television history.] In a previous episode, we watched Lilly overcome numerous obstacles (i.e., unconcealed racism) just registering to vote. On Election Day, she goes to the polls with a group of a dozen or so other black men and women. They travel to the polling place by bus, and are expecting trouble. They are duly registered, and the election workers find they have no choice but to allow them, reluctantly, to vote.

The look on Lilly's face after she casts her ballot is unforgettable: a combination of satisfaction, triumph and joy. But her expression also reveals surprise: that the act of voting, achieved only by overcoming many barriers, handicaps and threats, was in the end so commonplace. For someone like her, in that place and time, voting was an act of defiance, far from the routine exercise of a citizen's rights that it ought to be. And of course she cannot break free from a deeply ingrained caution in her demeanor, as a single vote cannot change the grinding reality of her segregated everyday life. Indeed, when the group goes outside the polling place after voting, they find their bus has been vandalized, and a menacing crowd of white men is standing nearby.

And yet, it is the indelible image of Lilly's smile when she steps out of the voting booth that lingers in the memory even after all these years. This is the idealized version of democracy of which Americans like to think they are the defenders. Who can fail to be moved by the victory of justice over oppression, wisdom over ignorance, freedom over servitude? Voting is at the core of our founding myth, and our response is almost an unconscious reflex. We felt the same thrill when we watched Iraqis brandishing their purple thumbs nearly 20 years ago after voting in their first free elections. For all the error and horror of the American invasion, all the miserable planning, unfinished business and unending conflict we unleashed, we could at least point to that one undeniable success. Or so we told ourselves.

At home, though, our voting record does not exactly bestow honor upon the heroic banner of freedom we profess to carry. In the land that Lincoln called "the last best hope of earth", voting is viewed by a large segment of the population as irrelevant to their lives. Kennedy proclaimed that we would "pay any price, bear any burden" in the defense of liberty. But, for tens of millions of people, merely voting is too heavy a burden.


The Alternative


Can a country that doesn't actually vote be considered a democracy? It is beyond dispute that the reverse is true: elections alone do not a democracy make. Many singularly undemocratic countries famously hold so-called elections, which are no more than propagandist show-pieces. We in the democratic world habitually and rightly mock the election results in benighted nations in which the tyrant (for example, the Syrian sadist-in-chief) always receives some preposterous portion of the vote, typically upwards of 95 percent. It is hard to fathom why they even go to the trouble of promulgating these farcical vote tallies. It would be more honest to declare a victory of 100 percent, since no citizens in their right minds would risk the lives and fortunes of their family and friends by voting for anyone besides the dictator, as if there were any other choice. (This practice of sham elections, very popular during the Communist era, is waning, though the decline in the tendency of dictators to declare a phony popular mandate is incidental to their grip on power.)

Democracy is not merely a calendar of majoritarian rituals but a habit of mind. What principally distinguishes a democratic from an authoritarian country are the institutions of government which administer and oversee the affairs of state — courts, legislatures, executive ministries, patent offices, municipal departments, public utilities, regulatory agencies, and the like — and, moreover, the population's willingness to acknowledge and accede to all of these levels of governmental authority without resorting to violence or insurrection to redress their grievances, and without the government needing the constant threat of official violence to induce the people to follow and respect the law, nor corrupt practices to get officials to protect it. Some may suggest that this view is hopelessly naive, because the law would be worthless without the possibility of punishment: arrest and imprisonment for criminal wrongdoing, financial sanction for civil offenses. But every kind of society that has ever existed, even primitive ones without governments in the modern sense, has been run by rules, and in every society rules are followed by many and flaunted by some. If this were not the case, every group of people, whether tribe, hamlet, city or state, would rapidly fragment and disperse, or descend into barbarism.

The citizens of a democracy may decide for themselves to what degree and with what moral fervor they will obey the law, and the collective outcome of those millions of individual decisions determines whether the society remains on a democratic trajectory or collapses into chaos or autocracy. If a majority of Americans suddenly refused to pay their taxes, for example, the force of law alone would provide no remedy. Those who live in autocracies, on the other hand, are not in fact citizens, but subjects, and they enjoy no such volition. This is not to suggest that there are not criminals in dictatorships, and that lawlessness does not thrive in the shadows throughout the globe. The difference is that the autocrat gives the people no choice. Following the law, or at least appearing to follow it, is required for mere survival, but is no guarantee of it. Being a "good citizen" in a totalitarian state is a waste of effort and beside the point, because only the dictator and his minions decide who is in favor and who is not, and the determination seldom has anything to do with one's actual behavior but is solely a reflection of the subject's political or symbolic usefulness to the regime. In a democracy, the citizen is presumed innocent; in an autocracy, all subjects are presumed guilty. One system is built on trust, the other on suspicion.

The size and power of the police are a good barometer of a democracy's health: the more police, the less trust, and the less freedom, and ipso facto the less democracy. A police state is one in which trust has disappeared completely, along with the free choice to be a law-abiding citizen, which is a prerequisite for a democratic society.

We are just one logical step away from arguing that the increasing militarization of America's police and the growing number of our fellow citizens who have lost faith in the instruments of government is a deeply worrying sign that our democracy is in fact weak and growing weaker all the time. But the evidence has been staring us in the face for a very long time that many Americans have never had a particularly strong commitment to democracy in the first place. For generations, civic-minded people have bemoaned low voter turnout as if it were a practical problem with practical solutions — e.g., change Election Day to Sunday, make mail-in voting easier, allow remote digital voting — rather than a fatal structural abnormality in the body politic. Even if we suppose that the mechanics of running the country are at least as important to the health of a democracy as the occasional visit to the polling place, it goes without saying that voting is fundamental to self-government. We could have elections without real democracy, but not the other way around.


The Fall


The 2020 presidential election had the largest turnout in decades, at about two-thirds of registered voters nationwide. If not for the overtly anti-democratic rhetoric from one side that both preceded and followed the actual vote, we might otherwise have considered this a positive and healthy development. However, had it not been for the autocratic tendencies of the former president and the threat he posed to the nation, as well as the surge in mail-in voting necessitated by the pandemic, it is unlikely that turnout would have much exceeded the 60 percent we find in the "typical" presidential election year. Even so, a turnout of well under 70 percent in any presidential election is frankly pathetic by any objective standard.

One-third of eligible voters — tens of millions of people — didn't bother voting in an election with severe potential consequences for the future of American democracy, which presumably means that these non-voters do not do care much if anything about the future of American democracy. Whether they are uninformed, ignorant, or indifferent, the result is the same. In addition, many of those who did vote supported a candidate who had unabashedly cozied up to any number of disreputable foreign dictators and, had he been re-elected, was clear in his intention to take this country further down the road to autocracy. This means that some undetermined number of his supporters did not care much about the future of American democracy, either. (We could probably make an educated guess about the actual number who don't care about democracy by counting those who have expressed support in polls for the insurrectionists of January 6, 2021.) It is probable that the one-third who didn't vote at all in 2020 have never voted in any election. This is difficult to prove statistically, since the mass of non-voters surely varies somewhat from one election to the next. Nonetheless, since tens of millions of eligible voters are not even registered, we know with certainty that a large segment of the population has in fact never voted at all, and more than likely never will.

What makes this situation even worse is that presidential elections represent the high-water mark of voter participation. In mid-term elections, a "good" turnout is considered to be somewhere in the vicinity of 50 percent, which is about what we managed in the one just held in 2022. Again, in an election of some consequence, in which control of both houses of Congress hung in the balance, and with the election dominating the news across the country for months on end, half the voting-age population couldn't be bothered. What does it mean to live in a country in which half of adults have never cast a ballot for a representative or senator? And since turnout only goes further downhill in state and local elections in off-years, it is undeniable that virtually no one in office in any capacity — governor, state legislator, mayor, council member and numerous lesser officials — enjoys anything close to a popular mandate. In the best case scenario, with a turnout of 50 to 60 percent (if a state or local race, for example, happens to coincide with a presidential one), the person with executive authority in your state, city or town was in most cases elected by no more than 25 to 30 percent of eligible voters. Even in a blowout, with majorities of votes cast approaching Communist-fiction levels of 80 or 90 percent, we're still talking about significantly less than a majority of the total adult population. And this, if anything, is an overestimate.

Let's look at a practical example. In New York State, voters get to decide on the budgets of their local school districts every year. It is one of the very few examples in the country of regularly scheduled direct democracy. The average turnout in these elections, held like clockwork on the third Tuesday in May, has averaged under 10 percent for many years. In 2019, for example, the last budget vote prior to the pandemic, turnout was eight percent statewide. (You read that right: 8%.) In 2020, with Covid-19 raging across the state, the vote was a statistical outlier. The Governor issued an executive order requiring school districts to suspend in-person voting and instead mail a ballot to every eligible voter. Whether he had the legal authority to do this remains an open question, but the consequences are plain to see: turnout surged to 23.9 percent.

Before we celebrate, consider: every registered voter in the state received a paper ballot in the mail with a postage-paid return envelope. All a voter had to do was tick off a couple of boxes and drop the envelope back in the mail. For more than three-quarters of the state's voters, this was too much to ask. Even among those with the most at stake in these votes, namely parents with school-aged children, a significant number, perhaps a majority, couldn't be bothered.

In 2021 and 2022, turnout returned to its moribund levels, to 7.5 and 8.8 percent, respectively.* (In many jurisdictions, the budget for the public library is on the same ballot as the school budget, but this is not mandatory. In places where they are separated, library vote turnout is typically much lower even than for the school budget.)

Consider two more salient points that make this even more distressing. First, in the 1990s, New York required the state's 700+ school districts to hold their votes on the same day — the aforementioned third Tuesday in May — in a bid to increase voter participation. Previously, votes were held on many different days in May and June. Some will argue that the actual motive was to help anti-tax groups to defeat budgets by mobilizing against schools in general, rather than having to attack budgets that were scattered all over the calendar. There may be some truth to that, especially since the uniform voting day was imposed on Long Island, where such groups were most vocal and active, several years prior to taking effect throughout the state. But the results were roughly the same: on average, turnout did not increase, and neither did the number of budgets defeated. Indifference continued unabated.

The second point is that the state further undermined its own stated goal of increasing turnout by imposing an annual cap on school spending, beginning in 2012. The impact of the school budget on local property taxes was thereby diminished, and the difference between a budget that passed or failed became in most cases negligible, rendering the budget vote relatively less meaningful. Predictably, voter turnout, already anemic, sagged even further. Why vote when the outcome is more or less certain? And so, for the last decade, annual turnout has languished well below 10 percent, except for that one irregular vote in the pandemic year of 2020, when it still couldn't even manage to break 25 percent.

There's an argument here for the elimination of the school and library vote altogether. It costs thousands of dollars to hold a public vote. Districts have to rent voting machines, print ballots, generate poll lists, disseminate information, publish legal notices, pay poll workers, and so on. If hardly anyone cares, then why doesn't New York just allow library and school boards to adopt a budget the way the town, county, state and federal governments do? We don't get to vote for any of those spending plans. If we don't like what's going on in Albany or Washington, our recourse is to vote out our representatives every other November. Why do we have a fully republican form of representation for every other level of government but not schools? Maybe giving the power of the purse fully to the library board and the school board, and holding elections for trustees on Election Day, would make voting for those bodies a little more interesting and meaningful. Then again, maybe turnout would be lousy then, too. But at least New York's schools wouldn't have to spend taxpayer money on this annual charade.

Even if we did away with these local votes, it would only underscore the larger problem: people don't vote. Should we do away with all statewide elections, then, since most people don't vote in them, either? What about congressional elections? If people have already disenfranchised themselves by failing to vote, are we really taking away their rights or merely acceding to their wishes? As someone once said about reading great books (attributed to Mark Twain): a person who does not read them has no advantage over the person who cannot. If we don't bother to vote, in what way are we better off than people who live in countries where there are no elections? And if voting is not very important to us, in what way exactly can we claim to be a democracy anyway?


The Checkered Past


Does anyone like the Electoral College? Its natural constituency is limited to presidential candidates who were elected without winning the popular vote (a grand total of three), and some of their most ardent followers. Most of the rest of America finds it an archaic and undemocratic institution without relevance to the modern world. The wisdom of the Founding Fathers seems to have abandoned them when it came to establishing a method for electing the chief executive. What were they thinking? Some of those who defend the Electoral College maintain that it was designed to ensure that the popular will in the smaller states would not be overwhelmed by superior numbers in the larger states. But the actual words of the founders suggests that they were more concerned with the problem of having a largely ignorant populace choose someone for a unique position of vital importance. This excerpt is from Federalist 68, concerning the election of the President:

"It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.

"It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations."

This passage could otherwise be summarized as, "Do we really want the common rabble to have the final say on who will occupy the highest office in the land?" In subsequent eras, this would become known as the Smoke-Filled Room tradition of government, now generally reviled as a corrupt practice designed to keep the insiders in and the wider public out. And to whom we do owe credit for these egalitarian sentiments? None other than Alexander Hamilton, lately beatified by Lin-Manuel Miranda as a champion of freedom and multiculturalism, but who in his time was as wary of the notion of equality as were the rest of his class. The eruption of the French Revolution a little more than one year after the U.S. Constitution was ratified, and only a few months after our first elected federal government took office, provided further justification for preventing too much power from falling into the hands of the unwashed masses.

The Electoral College presumably was copied from comparable European practices, by which a ruler was chosen by a select body of supposedly educated and well-informed persons. The Electors tasked with choosing the Holy Roman Emperor offers a notable example. The princes of various Germanic kingdoms were empowered for centuries to elevate some nobleman to be Emperor, usually from among their own ranks. One cannot help but observe a similarity with the College of Cardinals which elects the pope, another marginally democratic process in which the field of candidates is limited to the college's own members. This similarity is not surprising given that the HRE was altogether a fabrication of the Christian church, established in its original form in the 8th century by the Holy See as a means of protecting the largely defenseless Pope and his lands.

The election of the Emperor was hardly a democratic process which the newly minted United States could have been proud to emulate. In the first place, being an Elector was a hereditary title, which would have been anathema to the revolutionaries who risked their lives to rid themselves of a despised English king. And while being Emperor was nominally not hereditary, it did not stop most of those who held the title from passing it on to their sons, often establishing dynasties that lasted for generations. The Holy Roman Empire itself was a monstrosity, frequently derided by historians as neither holy, Roman nor an empire. At various times over the centuries it was as much of a threat to the papacy as its defender. Even though the Pope crowned the emperor, the ceremony was not infrequently carried out under duress. Having an army of questionable loyalty at the ready is rather like catching the proverbial tiger by the tail: you may think you're in control, but the tiger has other ideas.

This ecclesiastical protection racket, fashioned from the outset into a bludgeon for the political ambitions of those who headed it, was limping towards its final dissolution (in 1806) at the very time of the founding of our republic. The drafters of the Constitution, learned men without exception, would have been well aware of its existence and history when they grafted it into the bastardized form we suffer with today in the Electoral College. Granted, the Electoral College differs from its historical antecedents in that it is itself elected and is not a standing body, but, as we saw in the aftermath of the 2020 election, these distinctions alone are not a fool-proof defense against meddling by cretins and imbeciles, nor a guarantee that the electors themselves will be any more wise, honest and circumspect than the general public.

It is no accident, then, that our form of government is republican rather than democratic, with (allegedly wise) representatives substituting their judgment for those of the (relatively uninformed) voting public. It suited both the ambitions of the ruling caste and their distrust of the roiling commoners to keep power at one remove from voters. And the voters got the hint, as our sorry history of paltry turnouts proves. Even in our few instances of direct democracy, such as state referenda and school budgets, most of the people stay away. Hence it is habitual and easy for politicians of all tendencies to evoke "the people" in their daily rhetoric because, without their actual participation, "the people" remain largely a fiction of the politician's own making. And where fiction rules, misrule is the rule.


Use It or Lose It


The current distrust of and disdain for voting is a not a recent and sudden aberration in a storied history of participatory democracy, but a natural progression of centuries of skepticism and indifference. Those today who are the quickest to latch on to conspiracies about the electoral process are descendants of a long line of cranks and know-nothings for whom the government is not a means of achieving desirable ends but little more than a convenient punching bag for every complaint, large and small. (Exhibit A: Those currently haranguing the federal government for its response to a train derailment and chemical spill in eastern Ohio while simultaneously opposing regulations that may have actually made the railroads safer.) We continually demand the world from our government and then set it up to fail. If it is not merely your belief that the government is inept and foolish, but also your object as a citizen to prove it so, then what would be the point of voting?

Perhaps the paradox is simply too great: to expect us to retain our sense of awe and wonder at our democracy and at the same time consider it too ordinary and ineffective to warrant any special notice. Our freedoms are extraordinary precisely because they have become so ordinary. Is this a bad thing? Do we want to return to a time when millions of our fellow citizens had to commit acts of defiance just to exercise their right to vote? Isn't is better that our children grow up to think of voting as just another thing we do, rather than something they literally have to risk their lives for?

On the other hand, one theory of civilization holds that nothing worthwhile has ever been achieved without a struggle. In this view, human advancement only arises as a byproduct of the hardships we overcome. An old and stagnant society, in which military, political, social and economic gains are taken for granted, is at constant risk of being overtaken by a rising, neighboring one that is pushing at its boundaries. If we have ceased to see our own hard-won rights as worthy of sacrifice, and no longer view our government as a guarantor but as an opponent of these rights, then we are at great risk of losing them altogether.

We have less to fear from external forces that are banging on our gates than from our own fellow citizens who care not for democracy or equality but only about the protection of their own small group. In a nation as strong and well-protected as the United States, internal divisions have always proven a greater threat than external enemies. By our own neglect, we risk losing our democracy. In the end, we are the only ones who can preserve it, and the only ones who can destroy it.


* School budget vote statistics are from the New York State School Boards Association.

February 27, 2023
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