The United States of Apathy: To vote or not to vote?

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I immediately registered to vote after my 18th birthday last year, not out of desire but out of guilt and a vague sense of responsibility. I had heard enough of the importance of voting from my high school government teacher that it motivated me to register, but I’ll admit that I was, in fact, apathetic to the political system as a whole. I couldn’t see how one vote could influence the outcome of an entire election, and I also didn’t feel strongly enough about any particular candidate or proposition to warrant my approval or disapproval.

Voter apathy — the lack of interest in participating in elections by certain groups of voters — has long been considered one of the most significant reasons for the low turnout rates in this country. Also known as “political depression,” voter apathy has plagued the U.S. in the past century or so and has put our current political system at risk. With so little civic engagement, what will become of our democratic way of life? 

There are two central components of voter apathy: alienation and voter fatigue. Many voters feel alienated from the political system and feel as if their count has no influence whatsoever. Additionally, one of the dangers in this highly global, interconnected world is that the influx of news and current affairs that people consume or are exposed to on a daily basis can render them desensitized to politics as a whole. People might also believe that elections are occurring too often and simply do not care anymore.

Also known as “political depression,” voter apathy has plagued the U.S. in the past century or so and has put our current political system at risk.

Other reasons may include that individuals don’t like their choices, don’t feel informed enough to vote or encounter various legal and logistical barriers to voting. They may feel too busy or overwhelmed in their personal lives, confused about how the voting system works and unaware of how to register or just simply miss the deadlines. As a result, the U.S. has one of the lowest voter participation rates among developed countries in the world.

It wasn’t always like this, however.

During the 19th century, voter turnout rates were at an all-time high (sometimes more than 80%), as numerous party machines provided people with benefits in return for their votes, such as getting jobs, paying for funeral expenses and fueling bills. They were an essential part of political livelihood and were a much more active part of people’s social world by constantly encouraging individuals to engage in politics.

But from 1900-40, turnout rates decreased sharply, as parts of the population (such as African Americans in the South and many immigrants in the north) were shut out from the polls through voter suppression, and party machines lost their influence. Although many more individuals have gained access to voting now, turnout rates have never recovered to what they once were in the early days of democracy.

According to a Pew Research Center report, the U.S. trails behind many other developed countries in terms of voter turnout rates. In the 2016 presidential election, only a little more than half the voting-age population (55.7%) cast ballots, while other well-off countries such as Sweden and Denmark had turnout rates of 82.6% and 80.3%, respectively.

There is also a distinct link between class status and the likelihood to vote. More than 80% of Americans with college degrees vote as opposed to just 40% of Americans without high school degrees. “There is a class skew that is fundamental and very worrying,” said Alexander Keyssar, a Harvard University professor of history and social policy, to The New York Times. “Parts of society remain tuned out and don’t feel like active citizens. There is this sense of disengagement and powerlessness.”

According to a Pew Research Center report, the U.S. trails behind many other developed countries in terms of voter turnout rates.

The reality of voter demographics indicates that there is an unrepresentative sample of people at the polls — who isn’t voting matters just as much as how many people are voting. 

“The one consistent finding from 1972 up through 2008 and in subsequent elections are that voters and nonvoters have different preferences on economic policies,” said Jan Leighley, co-author of the book “Who Votes Now?: Demographics, Issues, Inequality, and Turnout in the United States” — to NPR. Her research presents that nonvoters are often young, minorities, disabled and of lower economic and social class. Nonvoters are also more likely to support Democratic party ideals such as the redistribution of wealth, housing bailouts and expanded social safety net programs.

When the midterm elections came around in November, I filled out my ballot hesitantly. I had struggled to find time to look up the candidates’ platforms, as well as analyze the full benefits and disadvantages of each proposition and, as a result, felt inadequate to make an informed decision.  

One of the questions that haunts voters and may discourage some from casting their ballots is that of whether their vote even matters. Personally, I’ve fallen victim to this as well and was tempted to not even take part in voting. I don’t come from a household that regularly discusses politics; my parents are immigrants and are much too busy making ends meet and getting through their day-to-day lives to teach either myself or my sister about the voting process and political issues that may or may not even affect us.

One of the questions that haunts voters and may discourage some from casting their ballots is that of whether their vote even matters.

To be apathetic is, however, to be complacent in the midst of injustice. While the 2018 midterm election results revealed a significant increase in voter participation rates — the highest in over four decades — there is still a long way to go to attain widespread, active civic engagement. 

We as UC Berkeley students, especially, are all often so preoccupied with our personal lives and problems — passing our midterms, meeting with friends, finding jobs and internships — that we might forget to look at the bigger picture. A single vote, especially from individuals of underrepresented backgrounds, would ensure that politicians are not just working for the interests of the few. 

Apathy is a serious threat to the very concept of democracy itself — the lack of voters at the poll indicates general indifference to politics or current affairs, and without voices to advocate for what’s right or wrong, no progress can be made. Experts have high hopes for record-breaking turnout rates in 2020, and so the future of democracy in this country rests on the shoulders of those who voice their thoughts at the polls.

Contact Stella Ho at [email protected].

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