Welcome to the post-U.S.-election world. The forecast calls for heavy rain with a chance of dystopia, so grab your umbrella and a box of MREs, but don’t lose hope yet. Things may seem bad now, but actually they’ve been bad for decades. How’s that for a silver lining?
Here’s the gist of our new reality: Donald Trump, with Mike Pence as his running mate, won the 2016 election. They are surrounding themselves with lobbyists, abusers, and the inexperienced. Moreover, the 115th United States Congress will be overwhelmingly Republican. (Didn’t I say a lot could happen in a few days?) Some people are happy or indifferent about these results, but far many others are unhappy, frustrated, and scared. That’s why there are protests and riots.
As mentioned in my last post, most Americans don’t like Trump. We don’t like Republicans, either. So how on earth did Trump become president and Congress go to the Republicans?
People have lots of opinions about that, as it turns out. White supremacists gave us these results, says The Nation. Eh, it’s just white women, says The Guardian. It’s more complicated, says Pew Research. Blame the DNC, says The Observer. And Facebook, says Fortune.
Some of what’s said may be true (or true-ish), but it is tangential, regardless. The biggest and simplest truth about this and every U.S. election is that many Americans fail themselves and each other by not voting. Whether you wanted President Clinton or President Trump or President Dear God, Someone Else, Please in 2016, the reality is only half of the citizenry ever participates in any election, meaning only a small percentage decides the fate of the nation. That’s a huge problem in a representative democracy, but it’s also solvable.
The 2016 Election: How Many People Voted (or Didn’t Vote)
Two hundred million** citizens were registered and legally able to vote in the 2016 election. That’s 61% of the current total population (about 325 million) and 89% of all citizens of voting age (about 226 million).
We’re still counting ballots from this election, but voter turnout appears to be low—possibly the lowest it’s been in 20 years for a presidential election. If this holds true by the final count, it’s further proof that we couldn’t stand either candidate.
- As of November 14th, 121 million votes have been counted. At the time of my writing, there are 61,039,676 counted votes (47.81%) for Hillary Clinton, and 60,371,193 (47.28%) for Donald Trump. Another several million votes have gone to third-party candidates like the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein. There has also been an influx of write-in ballots, as seen in Virginia and Maryland, where write-ins nearly tripled.
- This means about 61%, maybe 62%, of registered voters participated in the 2016 election. That number is depressing enough as it is, but it gets even worse when you pair it with all potentially-eligible citizens (i.e., those registered to vote and those not), or 226 million people, in which case 54% of citizens voted and 46% did not.
It’s easy to get hung up on demographics or the incongruent relationship between the popular vote and the electoral college. But, as much as I’m inclined to agree people sometimes vote for horrible reasons and that the electoral college needs major adjustments or to be thrown out entirely, none of these things tells the real story of not just the 2016 election, but all U.S. elections.
The real story is this:
60 million votes can decide who runs the world’s biggest superpower.
This is 30% of registered voters, 27% of citizens of voting age, and 19% of the total U.S. population. If you want to take it even further, it’s less than one percent of the world’s population.
Is it right or good that less than a third of the citizenry might decide the fate of a nation, one that, in many ways, decides the fate of the world?
This is not unique to the 2016 election. In U.S. elections, the few have always decided the fate of the many. Even when Obama pulled in big numbers in 2008, less than half of registered voters—and a mere 33% of all citizens of voting age—elected him.
Participation is even worse during midterm elections:
*All data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States Election Project, the World Bank, and Wikipedia.
**Voter registration stats from U.S. Census Bureau, with the exception of 2016’s, which comes from TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm. Probably inaccurate, as it’s unlikely 47 million people registered in four years.
We must stop focusing on how people are voting because the truth is . . . many people aren’t voting, either because they don’t care to or because they can’t. Half of the country didn’t vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. They didn’t vote at all.
Drawing broad conclusions about Americans from this election—on anything other than our apathy—is pointless. We won’t ever know what Americans think or want or can become if more people don’t vote.
So Where Do We Go from Here?
We all desire to be seen and heard, and to be treated well. Most of us are good people who want that for each other, too. Plenty of research even suggests we have similar visions for society. We are less divided than it seems. But we have to prove that to each other.
Below, I have compiled a list of what might be achieved at local, state, and national levels to improve voter turnout and thus representation. It isn’t a small list, but it is actionable.
- If you are already registered to vote, you need to follow through:
- on making sure your registration stays up to date.
- In many states, there are deadlines for making changes to your registration details.
- Registration purges may affect you if you don’t participate in every election. You may need to re-register. Yes, this is a form of voter suppression. Baby steps.
- by participating in primaries and caucuses, so we get the candidates we want in our elections.
- The 2016 primaries had a “high” turnout: 28.5%—that is, 15% of Republicans and 14% of Democrats. We can do better.
- Primaries and caucuses are largely managed by the two main political parties, and a little less so by the states. This is because you are picking the candidates for the parties. Rules for these elections can, therefore, be very different from those set for more state-managed elections. You may need to temporarily align yourself with a political party to participate. Read more about open vs. closed primaries.
- by voting on ballot measures, representatives, judges, sheriffs, etc., so the laws affecting us and the people serving us better reflect our beliefs.
- Many laws start at the state level, where your vote counts the most. This is often a more effective and less controversial way to promote change over time. Stay involved locally.
- Ballot measures work very differently between states, but there is a formal way to promote change and action in every place.
- by voting in midterm elections.
- In 2014, only 36% of eligible voters participated in the midterm election. This is tragic, considering Congress is just as important as the president, if not more so.
- If you are left-leaning, note that left-leaning voters are notoriously bad about showing up for midterm elections.
- by voting in presidential elections.
- Vote early and/or by mail to avoid long poll lines. Most states have some form of early voting.
- Registered, but not sure how to vote in a general election? Find your state among the videos in the How to Vote in Every State series.
- Use sites like My Time to Vote and RealClearPolitics to find out when elections take place in your state. If you can’t participate for some reason, find out if you can submit an absentee ballot or a surrogate affidavit. Do this as early as possible so deadlines won’t catch you by surprise.
- The most commonly cited reasons for not voting are a conflicting schedule (28%), particularly among 25 to 44 year olds; not being interested in the election or candidates (16%), especially among younger and middle-aged voters; and being hindered by an illness or disability (11%), particularly among individuals 65 or older. As employers and employees, fellow citizens, and caretakers, we can find ways to increase voter participation.
- Encourage early voting, absentee voting, and time off to vote. Be open to helping people get to the polls.
- While it might be nice to persuade someone to support a candidate you like, we honestly need less arguing over candidates and more discussion about the process of voting. Make the election process approachable, not off-putting.
- The younger a person is, the less likely he or she is to be registered. It is the duty of anyone who lives or works with young people to make sure they know how to register to vote.
- According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asians and Hispanics (of any race) are much less likely to be registered to vote. This is partly because those communities have a high proportion of immigrants who are not yet citizens, but this is not always the case. If you are part of, or close to, either of these communities, make sure that everyone who can register is doing so.
- Use or direct others to Vote.gov to begin.
- Try to support legislation that would automatically register citizens to vote.
- Caucuses, while they can encourage discussion, need to be used in conjunction with primaries or abolished because they disenfranchise low-income workers, young people, the elderly, and the disabled.
- All primaries either need to be open or have same-day political party registration. We need to stop disenfranchising the 40% of Americans who identify as political independents.
- Our main election day must be a public holiday and cannot be held on a day with religious significance. Making election day a public holiday would greatly increase voter turnout, given that the most common reason people cite for not voting is a conflicting schedule.
- Alternatively, more states need Oregon, Washington, and Colorado’s vote-by-mail options.
- Voting machines, which are buggy and easily tampered with, must be abolished in favor of paper ballots.
- Paper ballots need to have an accessible, standardized design that doesn’t change from state to state.
- We must restore voting rights for felons who have served their time.
- We need to consider “recalibrating” or abolishing the electoral college, which has caused great strife between Americans four times in U.S. history—twice in the last two decades. The idea behind the electoral college is to prevent tyranny of the majority (and foreign interference with our government), but it comes with many negative side effects, including unintentional voter suppression (e.g., Republicans in a heavily-Democratic state—or vice versa—may not bother voting because they feel their vote will not count).
- Being forced to vote for one candidate alone means voters often have to choose who they feel is “the lesser of evils.” Instant run-off voting or some other ranked voting system can solve this problem.
- It might not be a bad idea to have compulsory voting, as seen in places like Australia, Luxembourg, and Argentina.
Until the midterms in 2018, we should focus on our local governments and communities. It’s where we can do the most good.