Saturday, November 08, 2014

In a Democracy, it's all about Voting

It has now been a few days since the election, when many supposedly close races were decided definitively for the Republican candidate in a wave rivaling that of 2010. My disappointment was at least partially mitigated by the fact that it wasn't really a surprise, though I continued to hold out hope. I've had time to reflect on what happened and why it happened. There have been lots of hypotheses put forth to explain the election anomaly. One is that it wasn't really an anomaly after all, since mid-term elections often go for the party in opposition to the one in the White House at the time. That's true, but it doesn't fully explain why so many Republican senate candidates and gubernatorial candidates across the country won handily in what were predicted to be close elections. And why a few GOP candidates won in races where the Democrat was favored.

A backlash to Obama seems to be a popular explanation, even though with the economy improving, more than five years of steady job growth, record high stock market performance, and the fact that millions more people are now able to afford health insurance, it's hard to imagine what the backlash is all about.

Low voter turnout is also blamed, thanks at least partly due to voter suppression measures in several states. Regardless of the GOP efforts to keep poor and minority voters from the polls, it really is possible for those who are determined to vote to jump through all those hoops the Republicans set up for them. Those potential voters just need to be helped over the hurdles by grassroots support.

This year saw only 37 percent of eligible voters make that trek to the polls. This compares to a high of 70 percent in the 19th century. What would have been the result if that large a percentage turned out this year? Well, just look to Oregon, where more than 69 percent of voters actually cast a ballot. In that state, democratic challengers won handily. But if younger and minority voters don't begin claiming their American right to vote, they may always remain underrepresented in the Congress.

One way that might encourage more people to vote is to make it more convenient for them to do so. Bernie Sanders has suggested making election day a national holiday. This has always sounded like a no-brainer to me. We are the world's premier democracy, and yet fewer people turn out to exercise that right here than in 120 other democracies around the world. This is out of 169 total. Our leaders are always touting democracy as the answer to the oppression that exists in countries around the world, but we ought to be ashamed of how our citizens treat democracy when they have it.

If we don't want to go all out and make election day a holiday, there should at least be a law passed that would mandate that all employers give at least four straight hours during the day to go vote. An employee working a standard 9 to 5 shift would, therefore, not have to come in until 10:00 AM, since polls open at 6 o'clock in Indiana. That would give everyone four uninterrupted hours to arrange to vote. Or the employer could let their workforce go home early, at 2 o'clock.

Another way to encourage voters to actually vote is to make the process easier. We already have mail-in voting. But what is the holdup for allowing voting online? Everything else can be done online. You can pay your taxes online, shop online, do your banking online, and renew your license plates online. All of those require very secure data connections. Yet voting online remains elusive. And I don't understand that.

I'm sure our country will survive the GOP onslaught and a potential shift to the right that usually comes with such election results. I can live with the economic policies or the foreign relations policies that usually accompany a GOP-controlled Congress. But it will be very hard for me to take the policymaking to come that is based on opinion over science and fundamentalist religious belief over actual data. It will be tough for me to watch more states further restrict a woman's right to an abortion or even to have low-cost access to birth control. It will be agonizing to watch individual rights, like gay marriage, be undermined time and again at both the national and state levels. And it will be scary to know that the environmental fate of the world may be in the hands of policymakers who do not accept data-driven science but who, instead, rely on their own opinions and bible verses to inform policy decisions.

I keep wondering why the reality-denying crazies on the right keep getting elected. And I think it still comes down to the fact that there are just not enough informed voters who can see through their bullshit and lies. And there is not enough incentive to compel the left-leaning minorities to get out and vote. Until that changes, mid-term elections will continue to be an afterthought in American politics, fueled more by knee-jerk backlash to the administration currently in office than by any kind of pride in our democratic way of life.

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