When Scotland held their independence referendum vote, they achieved a voter turnout rate of an astounding 84.5%. I said then that the US would never achieve so high a level of participation in an election, least of all in a midterm election. I was right. The national turnout was about 36%. Pitiful.
A democracy cannot survive as a democracy with such a pathetic level of participation. 36% is a red alert. It is like your doctor telling you that your cholesterol is 280, and if you don’t do something, you’re gonna die. But no one seems to really care. We still eat fatty foods. Elections continue as they always have.
If we truly believed in democracy, the very bedrock of our culture, then we should take steps to improve participation in it. Election Day should be moved to a weekend or made a national holiday. I’m old enough to remember when my dad got half the day off on Election Day to vote. That disappeared a long time ago. Voting by mail should be practiced universally, nationwide, and so should same day registration. Maybe Election Day should become Election Week, a generous portion of days so that everyone can have time to participate, then the last day of that week would be the National Election Holiday. You should be able to vote anywhere, in libraries and coffee shops, in malls and schools, at home. There should be so many different ways to vote, that you’d have to go out of your way not to vote.
Important ancillary changes should occur, too, such as serious campaign finance reform. This midterm topped off as the most expensive in history, despite the pitiful turn out. One could say a lot of money went towards persuading few voters. Or one could say that a lot of money went towards dissuading people from participating.
But our body politic won’t implement even the most timid election reforms to boost participation or improve the process. Instead, we’ve clogged our arteries with voter ID laws, meant to suppress participation, not reduce nonexistent voter fraud; with unlimited money, thanks to Citizens United; and with milquetoast candidates that fail to inspire.
The Republican takeover of statehouses in the 2010 midterms allowed them to rework the voting process in their image, to the detriment of democracy. They gerrymandered congressional and other political boundaries in their favor, artificially locking in Republican majorities for years to come. Then they passed voter ID laws, a new kind of poll tax for the 21st century.
You remember the poll tax, right? The Jim Crow South used them as a means to keep poor African Americans away from elections. If you can’t pay, you can’t vote. They became illegal during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, but now voter ID laws have brought them back, in a kinder, gentler, sneakier way. While the ID cards themselves may cost little or nothing, the process of getting them can be costly. In many cases one needs a birth certificate to get one, and they do not come cheaply. In some cases, one has to travel great distances to get a birth certificate, adding to the expense. Concerns about voter fraud supposedly give this new poll tax a patina of respectability, but really it does not. Study after study has proven that voter fraud is a non-issue.
In the face of this clear and present danger to democracy, promulgated by an increasingly more conservative Republican Party, one would think that the Democrats would rise to the occasion and challenge these and other disgraces. But here is where we encounter the milquetoast candidates. The funny thing is that Republicans effectively mask their true intentions by sounding like populists during campaigns – JOBS! JOBS! JOBS! – then once elected, they proceed to pass voter ID laws, women’s healthcare restrictions, and, in Congress, do everything in their power to put a stranglehold on everything President Obama proposes. In other words, everything, but JOBS! JOBS! JOBS! Democrats, however, do the opposite. Instead of sounding like populists, many try to sound like Republicans, tacking to the right, in hopes that the issues they (supposedly) care about will go unnoticed. And then they don’t get elected.
Kentucky senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes best demonstrated why the Democrats faired so poorly in the 2014-midterm elections. When asked during an interview if she voted for President Obama, she gave a non-answer, and looked foolish doing so. Some defended her stance, citing the privacy of one’s vote and all. I call bullpucky. Like far too many Democrats who felt threated from the right, she ran, not walked, away from the president during her campaign. Her pitiful attempts at distancing herself from the president, while at the same time embracing policies of his that she likes, made her look like a phony. And people generally aren’t motivated to vote for phonies. She lost handily to now Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The continued lack of a spine doom the Democrats to second fiddle status. Rather than trumpet victories – Obamacare, decreased unemployment, a stabilized economy – they shy away from these issues and hope no one notices, while at the same time beg people to vote for them. But when you run scared, you’re not really running for anything at all.
The Republicans continue to use fear and voter suppression to win elections. Ten years ago, antigay marriage laws helped motivate their base to the polls. This time they championed the trumped up horrors of Ebola, ISIS, and Obama. Fear motivates because it installs insecurity and it makes you look tough, at least superficially. One does not need to present solutions to these problems, just blind outrage. For their part, the Democrats who ran to the right failed counteract the lies Republicans told to stoke fear, allowing the fears to fester and ultimately win. They instead ran as Republican-lite, which almost never works.
We have way too many serious issues facing us today for the likes of the election system we have in place. We need candidates who not only sound alarm bells but also bring forth intelligent, practical solutions to problems, solutions that benefit everyone, not just those with money and power. So the milquetoast Democratic candidates have to go. Hard limits on campaigning have to be established, and adhered to. And the voting process itself has to become a lot easier so that we get an 80% or 90% participation rate.
A major correction is needed, or the body politic will die, and take us along for the ride.