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Why do so few citizens participate in our democracy?

The troubling indicators that our way of doing democracy is not delivering all the democracy it should or could.

In the period 1990-2010, the United States comes in 29th out of 31 democracies in percentage of the voting-age population that actually votes, with an average turnout of 57.28 percent.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

This is the first in an occasional series comparing the U.S. system of politics and elections with other democracies around the world.

Democracy.

In America.

How’s it going?

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On the one hand, I assume that most Americans (myself included) believe that the United States, since the founding, has been a generally positive force and an example for the idea of democracy, the development of democracy, the promotion of democracy, and (even in spite of many historical deviations from that generalization) we are mostly proud of that in some gauzy, inchoate way that links up with both our patriotism and our national vanity.

On the other hand, in 1958, when pollsters first asked Americans whether they trusted the government to do the right thing, 73 percent said “yes,” “just about always” or at least “most of the time.” In 2010 that number was down to 22 percent. (Although, not to awfulize overmuch, by 2013, with the improvement in the economy, it had bumped back up to 26 percent.) The National Election Survey, which created that question, developed a slightly more complicated “Trust in Government Index,” shown here, but it makes the same point.

At the moment, we have a president, chosen twice by us for that (hard, thankless) job, whose approval ratings long since fell below 50 percent and keep reaching new lows. On the third hand, approval of President Obama looks positively stratospheric compared to the approval ratings of Congress, at least collectively. And since, at least according to the theory, We the People elected all these folks we dislike, distrust and disapprove of, the question might be raised what kind of approval rating We the People give to We the People when we look (figuratively and collectively) in a very large mirror.

Or is it the system?

It’s an election year here in the nation that considers itself the capital of world democracy, and a reasonable occasion for considering those questions. Collectively, theoretically at least, we have an opportunity to change some of the things that are bothering us. But, strangely, there doesn’t seem to be much real, consequential change on the ballot. The pundits think it’s somewhat likely that, after the election, partisan control of the U.S. Senate will have flipped from Democrats to Republicans. But with Obama still in the White House, it seems likely that some form of gridlock will continue in a Washington that has mostly forgotten how to compromise across party lines.

But that conundrum is mostly about the constitutional system of government, as evolved, which is in many respects built for gridlock. I wrote that series in the last election year. This time, I want to focus on issues of campaigning and especially voting. My plan is to look at some of the troubling indicators that our way of doing democracy is not delivering all the democracy it should or could, and then to look around the world, and talk to political scientists who specialize in those kinds of international comparisons of democracies and see what we can figure out.

I hope the series will be an invitation to the open-minded to set aside our (possibly overweening) pride in America’s system of democracy and consider whether we can learn anything from the rest of the democratic world, as the rest of the democratic world has learned much from our example, including, in some cases, what not to do.

Many relatively recent comers to the world of democracy have benefitted from our older experiment, but few of them decide to adopt our system. They have the benefit of our experience and can look for ways to avoid our mistakes.

The idea of my little exercise of comparative democracy is to reverse the favor by looking at aspects of democracy that may be working better elsewhere and see if they have figured out any tricks worth emulating or even just considering.

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Citizen participation

How do you measure the health of a democracy? One obvious and absolutely valid first thought is to measure the level of citizen participation, and the basic form of such participation is voting.

Of all the developed democracies in the world, the United States ranks near the bottom in the portion of its voting-age citizen population that votes. And, I’m afraid to tell you, the situation is even worse than that general statement makes it look.

“A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective,” a soon-to-be published text on comparative democracy, examines U.S. democracy in the context of (you guessed it) 31 developed democracies across the six populated continents of the world (although the biggest chunk of the 31 are in Europe). The lead author, political scientist Steven Taylor of Troy University in Alabama, kindly shared with me an advance copy of the chapter that deals with voter turnout.

It includes a chart depicting the percentage of the voting-age population that actually voted in all 31 democracies in the period 1990-2010. The highest turnout is Italy, with an average participation rate of 86.12 percent. The top 10 countries by this measure — all with average turnouts above 78 percent — are Italy, Belgium, Greece, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Brazil, Finland, Korea and New Zealand.

The United States comes in 29th of the 31 nations, with an average turnout of 57.28 percent.

That is a bad number. Very bad. You can argue, I suppose, that as long as people have a right to vote, it is up to them whether they choose to exercise that right. I’m not interested in making excuses for lazy or tuned-out voters, but Professor Bingham Powell of the University of Rochester, a veteran comparer of different systems of democracy, urges me (and you) to bear in mind that “lots of things affect voter turnout other than interest and competence of the voters.”

Even bearing that mind, in judging the health of a democracy, I don’t know how a low rate of voting participation can be taken as anything other than a serious sign of democratic ill health.

It gets worse…

Some of those “other” factors will be the subject of the next installment, but first allow me to argue that the U.S. turnout is actually quite a bit worse than that 57 percent participation rate makes it look.

Because this is 2014, it’s a midterm election year, as you know. The bad number above is the average of five presidential elections. And presidential elections always have a substantially larger turnout than any other in the U.S. election cycle.

Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, who specializes in studying turnout, says that presidential election turnouts in recent history have been generally in the upper 50s, occasionally breaking into the low 60s, and midterm turnouts have fairly consistently hovered just above and below the 40 percent mark. Here are Gans’ calculations of the turnouts over the last five midterm elections:

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  • 1994: 40.9 percent
  • 1998: 37.9 percent
  • 2002: 39.6 percent
  • 2006: 40.6 percent
  • 2010: 41.5 percent

As you can see, there’s been a slight uptick over the last few cycles, but Gans believes this trend is ending. After studying turnout in the primaries so far this cycle (it hit a record low in 15 of the first 25 states to hold primaries this year), Gans is projecting a drop in the turnout on Election Day this year from the level of recent midterms.

When constructing the table that ranked the United States 29th out of 31 democracies in turnout, the authors of the textbook cited above rated each country according to the highest-turnout election in its normal cycle. But nobody else on the list has a system that alternates regularly between a high-turnout election and a low-turnout election. In a typical election elsewhere in the democratic world, everything is on table.

So let’s just look this square in the face. It’s true that the presidency is not on the ballot this year. And that makes the midterm a somewhat less important election. But all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 35 Senate seats, including the one in Minnesota (there’s a couple of extras because of vacancies), will be on the ballot.

Theoretically, this is an opportunity for the electorate to deeply change the power structure in Washington, and to send, in the most meaningful and democratic way, a signal about what they want their national government to do over the next two years. It’s somewhat unlikely that this election will result in such a clear signal. But even if it does, the message will be sent by just 40 percent of the voting-age population.

We’re different

No other democracy in the world has a system quite like this, a system in which the legislative branch is regularly up for grabs in an election in which the executive branch is not. A system in which we have alternating turnouts from bad (60 percent) to worse (40 percent) then back to bad then back to worse.

You can say this was in a sense part of the Framers’ design. They built the staggered terms into the U.S. Constitution. There is general agreement that they wanted to cushion the national government from short-term swings in public opinion, and to make a bit harder to change the whole government with one sudden gust of public opinion that might be short-lived.

But the Framers did not mean to set up this weird alternation between bad and worse turnouts. It was not anyone’s intention and it’s hard to imagine why anyone would ever intend such a pattern. It has just evolved. And it’s pretty crazy. And no other democracy in the world has anything like that going on.