There are, broadly speaking, two normative theories about voting. There is the classical view that only those with a certain stake in society should be the ones who vote. Historically, this theory has been the basis for age and property qualifications, for example. An alternative “modern” view favors as broad a suffrage as possible, and that is the view that became dominant in the 20th century in most democratic societies. In the U.S., the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (1920) guaranteed women the right to vote; the 23rd Amendment (1961) allowed DC residents to vote for President; the 24th Amendment (1964) outlawed the poll tax; the 26th Amendment (1971) extended the right to vote to 18-year olds; and the Voting Rights Act (1965) finally enforced the15th Amendment (1870) guaranteeing the right to vote to descendants of former slaves. Even so, younger people and poorer people still tend to vote less than older and more affluent citizens - suggesting that the old norm connecting voting with an actual stake in society is still somewhat operative, although no longer at the normative but now only on the behavioral level.
Low voter turnout is, of course, endemic in American elections and is generally an occasion for considerable hand-wringing and lamentation. Those who lament our low-voter turnout seem to combine a “classical” concern with the moral and communitarian value of political participation with a “modern” desire to maximize such participation. A lot of us certainly were brought up to think of voting as a sort of civic obligation. Rarely does one’s individual vote make the decisive difference, after all. And nowadays most districts are “safe” districts for one party or another; and, even in hotly contested presidential elections, I’ve usually had little doubt who would win my state’s electoral votes, with or without my vote. For me voting, while certainly an important way to express my personal political preferences, has always been primarily a privileged civic ritual, which signifies a connection with and participation in the larger society, both national and local. Hence my reservations, which I expressed here last year at this time about “early voting,” which seems to reduce voting to something like a convenience-store transaction, by realigning what should be a communitarian civic ritual with people’s indiviudal timetables rather than a common civic calendar.
As it happens, I will be out of town on Election Day. So, to vote at all, I must either have filed for an absentee ballot (a somewhat cumbersome process) or (much more conveniently) have voted early. So, to exercise my franchise, I must already have decided not just whom to vote for but whether to vote at all.
Whether to vote at all? That’s not a question I was brought up to ask myself. Apart from the years when I was serving in Canada, I have generally been faithful to the participatory ideology that holds up voting as a civic obligation, regardless of whether one’s vote is likely to “matter.” But I didn’t vote in this year’s city primary. (I wasn’t alone in that apparently. The turnout was incredibly low). The fact is that I just didn’t know enough to make any kind of meaningful choice among the various candidates. Traditionally, that was one of the functions of political parties and why one voted for a political party (which presumably stood for something one agreed with or promised benefits one wanted) and not primarily for an individual (about whom one typically knew next to nothing). There may still be an argument for voting that way (by party loyalty), although parties admittedly are not what they used to be. In any event, what happens when party identification is not highlighted in elections – as is often the case in certain “nonpartisan” local elections?
There remain, it seems to me, two compelling arguments for voting - even in local elections where, generally speaking, one has so much less information to base one’s vote on. The first is simply that voting keeps one in the habit of voting, whereas not voting breaks the habit and so contributes over time to even more progressive disengagement from civic life – a problem increasingly endemic in our society (and particuarly problematic among “emerging adults”). The fact that many non-voters are less rooted and engaged in society may in fact make them poorer voters, more susceptible to the fads of the moment, Voting may not necessarily cure them of that, but non-voting certainy won’t and may instead deepen their disengagement. A second argument for voting is that today’s typical non-voters really do have a serious stake in society, inasmuch as so much of our present predicament is rooted in public policies that have been redistributing wealth from the poorer to the richer and from the younger to the older. It may be fun to fulminate in Zucotti Park, but it is a poor substitute for serious engagment in the real political process. (And, of all people, those Baby Boomers who are waxing so nostalgically for the 60s right now, should really know better from our generation’s own experience!). The fact is that disengagement from the real poltiical process always increases the effective power of those who already have plenty of power (perhaps too much of it).