The American midterm election results are still being parsed, weeks after the event: was it a blue ripple, or more like a blue tsunami for the Democrats? But one thing's for sure. Despite record attendance at the polls, still less than half the eligible population voted.
Illustration: Simon Letch.Credit:
Why do so few Americans exercise their fundamental civic duty? An easy answer would be that a lot of them are lazy, or are disengaged from politics, but I don't think it's that simple. For a start, voting in the US is not pleasant. Like anything involving public infrastructure there, it doesn't work very well. There are always long lines – which, ironically, are often trumpeted on social media as proof of democracy at work, rather than its opposite.
Compounding things is that elections are held on a Tuesday. When you consider that nearly 59 per cent of the US workforce are paid by the hour, the decision of whether to stand in a queue when you could be making money to secure your child's healthcare becomes a complicated one.
Unlike in Australia, where you can vote anywhere within your electorate – and voting outside of it isn't difficult – Americans are limited to voting in a particular polling location. Anecdotally, many are confused about where that is. And 45 per cent of Americans have no access to public transportation, so getting there isn't straightforward either.
Let's say you've made a plan to get to the polling station, located a bus route which will take you there, and have accepted you'll be sacrificing a few hours' income in order to perform your most basic duty as a citizen.
One in 50 potential voters in the US cannot vote at all because they have been convicted of a crime. In Florida, there are 1.5 million people who have been unable to vote because of felony disenfranchisement. Recall that the 2000 presidential election was won by just 537 votes in that state. The racial discrimination inherent in the American judicial system is well documented: as of 2016, black adults were imprisoned at a rate five times that of white adults. And Hispanics represented 16 per cent of the adult population, but accounted for 23 per cent of inmates.
In the lead-up to an election, a call goes out urging Americans to check that they have not been struck from the voting rolls. This is mystifying to Australians, who might occasionally wish the Australian Electoral Commission would lose their address.
The practice of "purging the rolls" is excused in all sorts of ways. In Ohio in 2016, at least 144,000 people were purged for infrequent voting. In Georgia in 2018, 107,000 people were removed from the rolls for similar reasons.
And in some states, if you don't have a photo ID, you won't be allowed into the polling booth – a rule which disproportionately affects poor people and the young.
"They didn't invent democracy," I used to huff to myself on hearing yet another American proudly talk about their system of governance and how great it was that everyone got a say in it.
The last time I thought that was years ago. Because the sad fact is that these days, voting itself has become yet another partisan issue in the deeply divided United States.
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