You don't have to be a dark cynic or a die-hard Marxist anymore to feel that something is tragically wrong with our political system. A near majority of citizens seem to agree, as witnessed by their conspicuous absence from polling places on election day. If present trends continue, voting will soon take its place next to baking bread and writing letters longhand as an activity that most Americans admire but rarely participate in.
With this year shaping up as the most decisive election in seven decades -- a pivotal moment offering us the choice between two very different paths into the future -- you would think that people's interest in politics would be almost electric. By autumn that may be true. I hope so. But right now, with literally thousands of key congressional and state campaigns facing us, as well the presidential contest, the mood of the electorate still seems weary and disillusioned.
What's the reason for this apparent apathy? One answer, voiced surprisingly often by progressives who otherwise see themselves as champions of the people, is that many Americans are either lazy or dense. But is that really true? We're the world leader in technological innovation, business entrepreneurship, and pop culture. Kids in the ghetto create fashions imitated around the world. Worldwide movements for ecology, civil rights, gay rights, and women's issues were born on American soil, even if they've taken root more firmly in other lands. It just doesn't ring true that Americans are too dull-minded to understand the importance of democratic participation.
Right-wing observers, on the other hand, give ordinary Americans credit for figuring out that politics, government, and all other forms of collaborative action are dusty remnants of the past: Tomorrow belongs to bold business executives, fueled by technology and unregulated markets, who will rule the world. This point of view puts a nice populist spin on Americans' seeming indifference to politics, but what conservative apologists don't say is that these non-voters are the same people who get screwed by bold corporate executives every day of the week and twice on Sunday. The right looks on average Americans as even dumber than the left does.
The media add to our apathy with a keen focus on certain swing voters, who usually turn out to be some privileged sector of the electorate such as soccer moms or high-tech professionals. Lower-income households, young people, immigrants, rural folks, single women, blue-collar suburbanites (see accompanying articles about the people who are the real swing voters) don't find themselves portrayed as players in the political contest. Their votes don't seem to count because reporters and news teams spend their days in upscale suburbs clamoring to interview the "important" voters who will "decide" the election.
What if we looked at the issue of political alienation from the perspective that most Americans aren't stupid and what they care about is not insignificant? Maybe people stay home on election day for reasons that make sense, at least to them. They're sick of campaigns conducted primarily through vicious TV ads. They distrust candidates who are bankrolled by craven political financiers. They don't see much difference between Democrats and Republicans on the issues that matter most in their lives. Indeed, they rarely see politicians even addressing these issues.
While this paints a stark picture of our political system, it may explain why voting rates have dramatically declined over the past century. It also offers us a clear starting place to launch a movement to resuscitate democracy in America. We can organize millions of citizens to get big money out of politics, to regulate TV ads, and to force politicians to talk about what's really going on across the country! All it will take is a massive turnout of voters next election day . . .
And that's the problem. To get more people to vote, we need to reform our electoral system; and to reform our electoral system, we need to get more people to vote. Low voter turnout suits campaign funders, corporate lobbyists, and entrenched politicians just fine, and they fiercely fight all efforts to significantly reform how we finance and operate our election campaigns.
So what do we do? Hang up our dreams and go home? That's just what defenders of the political status quo are hoping for -- indeed, planning on. Reinvigorating the American electoral system with a new dose of democracy is the most crucial political cause of the 21st century, one that will need our hard work for many years to come.
A good first step is to concentrate our efforts on reforming election day. Here are a few simple ideas for getting more people out to the polls, even without dramatic changes anywhere else in our political system.
1. Free Beer and Other Ways to Make Democracy a Party
When you think about it, elections could be one of America's great social occasions. You gather with neighbors to vote. What better excuse for a party? Set up a keg, or an espresso machine, or a table of desserts in a room next to the voting machines. The first one's free to everyone with an "I Voted" sticker. Who wouldn't want to stop by for some conversation and refreshments? (Paid for, of course, by community organizations, not candidates or parties!)
2. Election Day on the Weekend -- or Make It a Holiday
I was in Stockholm once on the day of Swedish national elections and watched people stroll to the polls on their way to brunch, church, or the park. With voting held on Sunday (as is the case in many nations around the world), it was no effort or inconvenience for most Swedes to find a few minutes out of a leisurely day to cast their ballots. Compare that to the United States, where Tuesday voting means we must squeeze in a trip to the polls before we go to work or after we get home -- the same time that all the other voters in the precinct are lining up.
The founding fathers, as visionary as they were, made a blunder when they set elections for the first Tuesday in November. Chilly, dark early in the evening, frequently rainy or icy, election day can deter even the most enthusiastic political participant. And the framers of the constitution could not imagine the busy lives of the 21st century, when casting a ballot involves major hassles in leaving work, finding child care, or arranging transportation. To salvage our political system, let's set election day on a weekend during some season when the weather is mild. Or, better yet, declare it a national holiday. Americans already work more hours than any people in the industrialized world, so give us a break to celebrate Democracy Day.
3. Voter Discounts
"I Voted" stickers could be redeemed for discounts at the local bakery, coffee shop, hardware store, or grocery. Elections, after all, are neighborhood events, so nearby businesses could use the day to remind you that they are part of your community and the giant superstores out by the highway are not.
4. Free Lottery Tickets
The only thing Americans like as much as shopping and parties is the chance to make something for nothing. So why not harness those instincts for the cause of democracy? Every voting receipt becomes a ticket in a national lottery with more money up for grabs than in the biggest Powerball drawing. That gives all of us a chance to become a winner on election night.
5. A Tax Break for Voters
Wealthy folks get a tax break for practically everything they do, so it's only fair that the rest of us get an incentive to do our part for democracy. Everyone who shows up at the polls should be entitled to a small tax cut, applied according to the spirit of the 16th Amendment in a graduated way, so that the poorest voters see the most savings.
6. Fines for People Who Don't Vote
While harsh, this is also effective. Call it an apathy tax. It's done in Australia, where recent voter turnout reached 95 percent.
7. Online, Phone, or Mail Voting
It's a busy world, getting busier all the time. Since we now save time by shopping from catalogs, banking by phone, and buying stamps online, we need to figure out ways to make voting more convenient. Oregon already offers voters the chance to mail in ballots and Michigan opened its recent presidential caucuses to online participation.
The sheer sensibleness and civic spirit of ideas like these could help them become a reality in the near future. I mean, who is so low and so devoted to the status quo that they would oppose measures to put some of the fun back in election day? I'll see you down at the polling place. Cheers!
Jay Walljasper is editor of Utne.