Why do so few citizens participate in our democracy?

REUTERS/Mike Blake
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.

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


In America.

How’s it going?

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.

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:

  • 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.

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Comments (47)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 09/29/2014 - 09:57 am.

    I don’t think you can blame poor turnout on ‘the system’

    This one’s on us.

    • Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 09/29/2014 - 10:28 am.

      Is it laziness?

      Laziness is one explanation for low turnout, but I wonder how much the stakes play into it. Scotland had turnout int he high 80’s when it voted on independence, despite reducing the voting age to 16, and I’m guessing few teenagers voted. I’ve heard anecdotes, and I stress just anecdotes, suggesting turnout shoots up in countries where losing an election means the winning party makes your life hell by putting opponents in jail, taking land, etc. So I wonder if low turnout here is just a matter of Americans seeing little being at stake. That might be a product of any one election affecting just some of those who govern us. We know the Senate will stymie whoever wins the House, the Congress and president will stop each other, the courts will get in the way, and the states of some similar limitations on anyone’s ability to do anything.

      As much as it pains me that people can’t name their congressman, let alone state or local elected officials, I wonder if they’re right that it doesn’t matter in many cases. Even if my first response to that notion is disbelief, I certainly notice that US House districts are cut in such a way that who gets the most votes is merely influential, not determinative, of who get the majority, and the Senate makes no sense at all when Wyoming’s half million people can nullify the votes of California’s 36 million. The fact is our modern divisions are primary partisan and ideological, but our government structure doesn’t reflect that at all. Maybe we should have a house determined by proportional voting by party, like some other democracies do.

      • Submitted by Luke Ferguson on 09/29/2014 - 11:05 am.

        Proportional Representation

        I’m glad to hear someone else mention proportional representation, Eric. I really like the concept.

        One of the biggest problems I see is that people do not vote in their own economic best interest and the best interest of people like them. Is that their right? Sure, but I don’t believe most people would vote against their interests if they realized that’s what they were doing.

        Our system prioritizes candidates over issues. If you like a candidate, you might vote for him without any regard for their stances on issues. Or even despite your disagreement over issues. “Sure, he and I don’t agree on (issue), but he’s a good guy so I’ll vote for him.” For example, Rick Nolan’s latest ad.

        A system where you vote for a party, a set of ideals and politics, not a person, might be a step towards increasing people’s awareness of issues, and how those issues affect people’s lives. Rather than being swayed by the (very very expensive) marketing campaigns we run to make our candidates loved by all.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/29/2014 - 06:01 pm.


          I think you folks are forgetting that technically we are not a democracy, we are a republic.

          It is intentional that the folks in Wyoming can stand up to California. It helps to secure our unity.

          • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/02/2014 - 03:10 pm.

            Not this right-wing meme again!

            In the past five years or so, countless right-wingers (and right-wing websites, like the one Mr. Appelen has linked to) have claimed, “We aren’t a democracy; we’re a republic.”

            Well, excuse me, but when the Eastern European countries were released from Soviet influence did we say that they were now republics? No, we said that they now had democracy. They had been republics since the end of World War II.

            I suspect that the Republicans and others are using this talking point because “republic” leads people to think of “Republican,” and “democracy” leads people to think of “Democratic.”

            Here’s what the standard definitions were before the right-wingers launched their “we’ll-say-that-we-aren’t-a-democracy-so-that-it-makes-the-Democratic-Party-sound-illegitimate” campaign.

            Republic: A country without a monarchy. That’s why Finland and Iceland are republics, but Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are not. South Korea is a republic, but Japan is not. France is a republic, but Belgium is not. The United States is indeed a republic, but Canada and Australia are not, since the British monarch is the official head of state. If an Australian says that he’s a “republican,” it means that he wants to give up the ties with the British monarchy.

            Countries like Sweden, Japan, Canada, Belgium, and Australia may not be republics, but they ARE democracies, *indirect democracies.* That is, their citizens vote on who will represent them in the nation’s legislative bodies, since it would be unwieldy to have all the millions of people in a country vote on every issue that came up.

            That is why *direct democracy* is limited to small groups, such as a New England town meeting, the plenary meeting of a professional organization, or the citizens’ assembly of ancient Athens, which consisted of the city’s adult non-slave men.

            In normal political discussions, as opposed to right-wing propaganda, the U.S. is set up as a representative democracy. Whether it actually functions that way is increasingly open to doubt, given the role of Big Money in bribing–I mean, supporting–our legislators.

            Just being a republic is no great virtue. China, Pakistan, and Iran can legitimately be described as republics, since they have no hereditary monarchy. That’s not a very high standard to live up to.

            Sorry, right-wingers. Even if “democracy” calls to mind “Democratic,” it is the correct terminology.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/02/2014 - 03:46 pm.


            These people are crackpots for the ages. The legal source material is of historical interest only, they are blatantly infringing on at least one copyright (Koffler’s Common Law Pleading book), and their legal information shows a capacity for fantasy that your average acid-head would envy (just to pick one: the US Supreme Court does not have to certify that a statute is constitutional before it may be enforced).

            In short, I am less than impressed by your reliance on them as authority.

    • Submitted by trey.moreno Moreno on 11/05/2016 - 11:06 pm.

      Why I don’t vote

      I don’t participate in the election process because no one represents me. I am a Republican who lives in Texas and a Veteran. I don’t care most of the time what any candidate says or does Republican or Democrat. I live in a Democratic Congressional District and have a representative who will not represent me or my views. I live in a country who makes the Presidential Elections out to be like a Celebrity Talent Show. We have 360 Million People in the country and we always end up with people we would not allow to watch our kids with. We end up with Career Politicians that are above the law and do what they want and live in Washington DC instead of their own Districts. This is nothing but a sick and dangerous game they play. When I stop feeling like a pawn to a empire then I will vote. But I know Republicans and Democrats have a lot smarter people out there than this. The thing is they don’t want nothing to do with that mess either, that’s why they are so smart. They know better than that. So enjoy the Sh*t Sandwich with the blue sauce or the Sh*t Sandwich with the red sauce, either way its still a Sh*t Sandwich.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/29/2014 - 10:17 am.

    Before bemoaning the low voter participation rate, we should first thoughtfully observe the low information rate displayed by the supposed best and brightest our colleges produce.

    We’ve all seen video clips of college students utterly befuddled by questions of historical importance to Americans, but worse is the failure to name the sitting President, or even the three branches of government. We won’t even bother to invoke high school students or our increasing number of drop-outs.

    I don’t think it’s far off the mark to say that other questions of importance, foreign affairs; government finance; constitutional questions are completely off the radar for 1/2 of our general population.

    And, also we must consider that there, for a myriad of reasons, are currently 46.5 million individuals receiving SNAP benefits. Many are children, of course, but that is an insane number of dependents.

    My objective here is not to point fingers (although the usual suspects shine brightly here), rather I intend to posit the radical idea that given the sad state of citizen participation (by which I mean staying informed and contributing financially and physically) a high turnout serves only those who wish to impose tyranny on the population.

    Let us recall our founding:

    “In the early history of U.S., most states allowed only Caucasian males, who either owned property (i.e., at least 50 acres of land), or, had taxable incomes, to vote.”

    While disenfranchising one based on race or gender is, and should always remain an anathema, the idea that voting entail some invested interest is, in my opinion, one that deserves some consideration. Simply put, those most involved, most informed, are those with something to lose.

    Now I realize that will cause outrage with those who favor scouring the neighborhood, absentee ballot in hand, for indigents and dependents wholly uninformed (or misinformed) of the issues they are casting a vote for or against, but I would ague their outrage would cool when those who live on the fringes of society are used to impose a tyranny they do not desire.

    Of course, this isn’t likely to happen, given the fact that the disinvested voting population now count a sizeable minority, and would certainly be rallied to protect a status quo many do not even understand. But that doesn’t change the fact that as we become a nation more and more dependent on the energies and resources of a dwindling “other guy” our cherished civilization will pay an increasingly harsh, and increasingly unsustainable price.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/29/2014 - 10:28 am.

    Yes and No

    Our constitution basically sets up a two party system although that wasn’t the intent. Parliamentary or proportional systems may encourage more voter participation for a few reasons but I’m not impressed with Italy’s government, or legal system.

    As for confidence in the government, we’ve a sustained and organized effort aimed at undermining confidence in the government for decades culminating in Reagan’s declaration the government is our problem and building from there. Unfortunately the liberal response was to decide that government and public policy are irrelevant as well. It’s been a perfect storm of collective stupidity that just now seems to lifting a little.

    I think the other problem is simply your definition of “participation”. A lot of people don’t believe in set-it-and-forget-it democracy, you vote and the watch sports. There are a lot of ways of participating in the democratic process, and you do see a lot of that activity, even down at the capital.

    I’m not sure over-all voter turn-out is a problem, but I do worry about under-representation, i.e. disenfranchisement of various kinds. I guess for me, it’s more important that everyone who wants to vote is casting their vote rather than getting everyone to vote.

    And of course when you look the considerable level of ignorance amongst the US population regarding everything from the Geography to the Constitution; it’s not all THAT clear that increasing voter turnout is as good an idea as it sounds at first. I’d like to see the American capacity for critical thinking increase a bit before everyone heads to the polls. I know that’s elitist but I think the Tea Party has shown us the power of ignorant people in large numbers.

  4. Submitted by Robert Helland on 09/29/2014 - 10:55 am.

    A two-legged stool is not balanced, nor is a two-party system

    May we now reject the idea that our political system is “balanced” by the mere presence of two opposing political parties?

    Balance is achieved through shared governance, mutual respect and effective communication. I believe people are looking for a balanced approach to government – it’s not out there – and the promise of “bipartisanship” has been a perpetual failure by presenting half-solutions or dirty compromises. My take: “If bipartisanship was supposed to be good, tripartisanship can only be better.” Minnesota has viable third-party options on the ballot in November, and I just happen to be one of them.

    We need elected leaders who can represent all Minnesotans: republicans, democrats and everyone else, including the 60% of people who say they are independent. This is a balanced approach to government and what people have a political appetite for. Who can blame the average voter who has to hold their nose to vote for their “lesser of two evil” candidates? Modern politics smells like old fish.

    For my race, secretary of state, I’ve compiled public footage that features myself and my two opponents, Dan Severson and Steve Simon, each with an unedited five minute appeal to voters. My values and believes require that I provide this information to voters so they can make an informed choice. Please watch and see who focuses on the issues that are important to you and who you believe is good for Minnesota. (Thanks to CTV North Suburbs) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gme3NVt1_tE

    Please also watch the “Director’s Cut” of the Independence Party of Minnesota’s candidate for statewide office. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTXIhzHdKfM

    You have many options this year, but you only get one vote. Choose wisely. Vote for true balance.

    ~Bob Helland
    for Minnesota Secretary of State

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 09/29/2014 - 11:50 am.

      And yet, a two-wheeled bicycle, when in motion, is incredibly stable, as opposed to a tricycle which can easily overturn at speed…

      A two party system CAN provide balanced, but not when each party is allowed to gerrymander districts, or when one party adopts political purity tests.

      Would it be nice to have a multi-party system? Maybe. Would more or less get done? Not with a 3rd party whose own candidates consider their opponents to be “two evils.”

      And yes, I know you weren’t calling Mr. Johnson or Mr. Dayton ‘evil,’ but you have to stand FOR something to get elected, not in opposition to others.

      I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a throw-away vote, and any vote you can earn is great. Americans tend to be brutally pragmatic in the near-term, however, and will likely vote for who they believe can both win AND represent some of their interests.

      I think it would make more sense, if you want to advocate for true ‘balance’ in politics, to possibly remove party ID for certain statewide offices, but that comes with it’s own risks.

      • Submitted by Robert Helland on 09/29/2014 - 12:45 pm.

        I’ve provided fair representation of my opponents

        I hope you take the opportunity, Mr. Ecklund, to view the fifteen minutes of footage I’ve provided to see what I stand for compared to what my opponents, Dan Severson and Steve Simon, each stand for. You’ll see why I stand alone as the “business services candidate” and the “technology candidate” in the race.

        My party does not represent me, I do.

        As for nonpartisan statewide offices, I agree with your assessment and I also agree a multi party system has no guarantees. I only ask we try something new. That’s the direction we must consider. The problem is wrapped up in M.S. 200.02 Subd. 7. Should we institutionalize political privilege at all?

        ~Bob Helland
        “Minnesota’s First ‘Tripartisan’ Politician”

    • Submitted by E Gamauf on 09/30/2014 - 07:48 am.

      Politics is now a stool?

      Nice metaphor, but slinging haphazard metaphors does not explain a relationship.

      Metaphors need to be explained & understood.
      Because they are merely constructs.

      The job of secretary of state is not a stool.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/29/2014 - 11:05 am.

    Democracy’s decline

    I don’t have the tools to do the necessary research to support this, but I’ve read in several places over the years that, to be “successful,” democracy pretty much requires a middle class. Societies with concentrated wealth, or no wealth to speak of, have generally not been able to get democracy to work as a system. In both instances – concentrated wealth and/or very little wealth society-wide – the bulk of the population doesn’t have much of a vested interest in governmental participation, which is what democracy requires, both theoretically and practically.

    Some might argue, and I’d be inclined to agree, given the statistics, that what we have at the moment is oligarchy, not democracy, and the argument as to why that might be the case pretty easily devolves into a chicken/egg controversy. Does a huge segment of the general public ignore the workings of government because they’re convinced that the wealthy are pulling the puppet strings, or do the 1% actually pull those puppet strings, thus making wide participation on the part of the public irrelevant? Either way, oligarchy has the effect of suppressing citizen interest and participation in the political process.

    I think there’s little question that expanding the franchise has not necessarily enhanced the quality of political discourse. Dropping the voting age from 21 to 18 has not produced a groundswell of youthful voters (the most dependable voters are old people like me), and after decades of struggle to finally achieve voting rights, women fail to vote in only slightly different proportion than men. One of the interesting side developments of almost every campaign is the effort by one or both parties to “get out the vote” in minority communities, which seems oddly difficult to accomplish, since minority communities have the most to gain by political activism.

    Those countries with better records for voter participation generally have more responsive governmental systems than ours (parliamentary vs. our legislative/executive separation), and they also seem to have elections that feature much shorter, much less expensive campaigns. I don’t know anything about the financial limitations, if any, but I’ve read that several European countries limit, by law, the length of political campaigns. Someone has probably done some research to find out if shorter campaigns have a noticeable effect on voter turnout, but offhand, I couldn’t quote anything, though I have my suspicions.

    Personally, I blame much of the problem on complacency, and beyond that, on the sheer size of the country. The belief in American exceptionalism can be corrosive, nearly as corrosive as the assumption on the part of many that wealth somehow demonstrates competency. How many millionaires are there in the current Congress? How well do their interests align with the interests of citizens – especially those who aren’t voting – in their districts? I’d guess that not many in Congress take the trouble to find out. Beyond the failure of individual members of Congress to genuinely serve the interests of their constituents, however, it strikes me as sophistry to blame lack of voter participation on anything but the voters.

    Few things are more ironic in politics than people who have the franchise choosing not to vote while others, individually and collectively, are working hard to keep some of their fellow-citizens from exercising the franchise at all.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/29/2014 - 11:12 am.

    One could flip the question

    and ask why ANYONE votes.
    Which furthers one’s self interest more:
    casting one ballot, or making a political contribution that might effect ten ballots?

    And of course elections seldom produce immediate dramatic changes in our personal lives, so we’re dealing with the effects of delayed and uncertain consequences on behavior, which typically are weak.

    One answer:
    Australia has a 94% voting turnout.
    Of course, voting is mandatory, with fines for not turning out.

    Books have been written on the subject.

  7. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 09/29/2014 - 11:16 am.

    America is a real political mess

    Politicians are not required to speak the truth. One will say something and minutes later the other side will have concocted their own truth, which of course is to the contrary. The voters are very confused. The politicians have no concern for the good of America anymore only their next election. One election completes and within hours the next election, starts, no time for getting work done. The Supreme Court, I use that term loosely, has done all they can do to help the wealthy get more than one vote in a one vote system. It is also the voters who are responsible. There are no consequences for the politicians who refuse to work vs campaign for a living due to voter apathy. America is a real political mess right now and it doesn’t have to be that way. Voters, November is your chance to start making positive political change. Don’t vote because you have always voted for that party, vote because you want to something beyond the political status quo. Put some meaning in your vote.

  8. Submitted by Ray Lewis on 09/29/2014 - 11:31 am.

    So what should we do about this?

    Thanks for starting this series Eric, and pointing out the obvious flaws while searching for workable alternatives across other societies. I think the co-contributors in the comments section will provide willing feedback on the other sections of the report you referenced above.

    Social and religious characteristics of the electorate
    Partisanship and evaluation of the political parties
    Ideological self-identification
    Public opinion on public policy issues
    Support for the political system
    Political involvement and participation in politics
    Evaluation of the presidential candidates
    Evaluation of the congressional candidates
    Vote choice

    I believe the anti-government meme in political advertising over time, based on economic and social self-interest, has divided the country into echo-chamber viewpoints that can rarely see the common good, much less the common ground for uniting together.

    In my opinion the negative view of government, elected officials and democracy can be documented as a systematic downward spiral where modern communications, technology and funding have replaced the “town-hall” or public debates where other voices could be included at many level of debate and decision making.

    I’d like to know how others here define the system of civics, governance and power to make decisions and how “we the people” can make changes to the system while we still can.

    Personally, I like Justice Sandra Day O’Conner’s post SC retirement project, but would focus on all people rather than middle schools. In 2006, she launched iCivics, an online civics education venture. As she explained, “We have a complex system of government. You have to teach it to every generation.”


    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/29/2014 - 01:11 pm.

      The ‘anti-government meme’

      is not bipartisan.
      It has and is being perpetuated mostly by a party that historically has represented a minority of the population and appears to see no way to change that within the system (Ray Schoch’s point about the middle class is a good one) sees its only chance as discrediting the system itself.
      If you can convince most citizens that all government is bad and that all politicians are crooks, they’re less likely to vote for anyone. That benefits the party with a reliable core of regular voters that can be depended on to turn out for any and all elections.

      And Swifty may actually have a point.
      As a modest proposal, require voters as part of registration to pass the same civics exam that new citizens have to pass.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/29/2014 - 04:18 pm.

        One problem

        As I expect the content of said exam is provided as a governmental function, you could expect massive redesigns every new administration. Besides, there is this little thing called the Civil Rights Act, and I’m fairly certain poll tests are disallowed for this very reason. Sadly, your plan only functions if all act in good faith, which rest assured will never be the case.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/29/2014 - 07:00 pm.

          It would be an interesting case!

          For the Civil Rights Act to be invoked, someone would have to make a creditable claim that the test discriminated on the basis of something other than simple knowledge or civic rights and responsibilities. I could see that being done, but it would probably in turn raise the issue of inherently unequal educational systems, which would make things even more interesting!

          • Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/30/2014 - 09:49 am.

            Perhaps I’m not a good political junkie

            But I find the potential harm caused by the implementation of such a plan, while the legal morass is sorted out, to be far more compelling than any intellectual exercise in its legality. Elections, for all their coverage as such, are not a game. Disenfranchisement is serious business and should be treated as such.

          • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/30/2014 - 10:31 am.

            Simply naming the three branches of government would be an excellent place to start.

            • Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/30/2014 - 12:44 pm.


              Wall Street, Military Industrial Complex, and Jehovah God (You did intend this from the perspective of a conservative voter right?)

        • Submitted by Anita Newhouse on 09/29/2014 - 11:23 pm.

          It’s not a poll tax

          if folks were required to take and pass a form of the citizenship test each time they renew their driver’s license or state identification card. The content tested would have to change so as to not be the same each time. Folks would need to maintain a dynamic understanding of civics. In Minnesota, seventh grade social studies standards cover civics and learning the workings of our government. It’s a shame that those with the freshest understanding can’t vote for another five years.

          • Submitted by Kurt Nelson on 09/30/2014 - 08:30 am.

            Who’s gonna write that test

            You?, The pundits at Faux news? George Soros, who?
            I would have just one question, and its right their in the Constitution (no fair peeking however). What is the size of the District (of Columbia) – answer that you can vote, otherwise, nope.
            This repeated silliness of having a test need to be put to bed. Because someone does not know what you know they are therefore politically ignorant. I know that plays well with the rightwingnuts, but in the real world it is hot air.

            • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/30/2014 - 09:51 am.

              I DID peek

              because I doubted that the Constitution said anything about the size of THE ‘District’, since it didn’t exist at that time.
              What it DOES say is:
              “….such district (not exceeding ten miles square)….”
              In other words, it says that the state(s) shall at some time in the future cede land not exceeding ten miles square to set up a seat of government.
              Anyone answer that from memory?

              As to writing the test, we already have one as noted above.
              I haven’t heard any serious accusations of bias in the INS test.

              • Submitted by Kurt Nelson on 09/30/2014 - 03:45 pm.

                you forgot

                the part about the district being the seat of government, not some mythical place, which in fact did exist on the writing of this clause. That they chose what is now DC does not negate that they did mandate how big an area it would occupy. Oh, and I’m not sure which part of ten miles square does not mean size. Ten miles square is in fact an area of measure.

                • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/30/2014 - 08:29 pm.

                  If you read

                  what I said, you’ll see that I did, in fact use the words ‘seat of government’.
                  In 1790, the seat of the federal government was New York City; before then Philadephia.

                  And saying that the District, when chosen, will not -exceed- 100 square miles (a square with 10 mile sides) does not specify its size; just its limits.
                  The current Federal District in fact covers 68.3 square miles, according to Wikipedia.

          • Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/30/2014 - 09:52 am.

            Poll Test/Poll Tax

            Two seperate items, both used to discriminate against minorities and the poor, both banned by the Civil Rights Act.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/30/2014 - 04:24 pm.

            Why would you do that?

            What would the purpose of taking a “citizenship test” be? We are citizens either by birth or by naturalization. Once citizenship is attained, it cannot be taken away involuntarily, so flunking the renewal test would mean–what, exactly?

            What about the people who don’t want to be involved, or aware? Are we going to force political engagement on, say, Jehovah’s Witnesses?

  9. Submitted by Michael Friedman on 09/29/2014 - 03:02 pm.

    AT&T and T-Mobile

    When consolidation of major corporations leaves too few competitors, antitrust law is invoked to prevent potential harm to the marketplace.

    It’s time to apply antitrust analysis to the two party system. We have been harmed by lack of choice in the political marketplace for too long.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 09/29/2014 - 03:57 pm.

      No, we haven’t been harmed by lack of choice. In almost every election there are multiple candidates running on various platforms and for various parties. The real problem is the FINANCING of elections, not the selection of candidates.

      • Submitted by Michael Friedman on 09/29/2014 - 04:49 pm.

        the analogy

        Antitrust is still invoked when two dominant corporations allow minor “competitors” but rig the system to prevent their growth into something that can compete.

  10. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 09/29/2014 - 04:13 pm.

    Thank You For The Side-By-Side

    I looked at the footage Mr. Helland so generously provided and it confirms my initial impression that Steve Simon is the far, far better candidate for Secretary of State. Mr. Simon makes a compelling case for his candidacy. He clearly understands the primacy of securing voting rights. While “business services” is one aspect of the office, it functions pretty much on its own regardless of who is the Secretary. We have witnessed what happens when a Secretary of State (Mary Kiffmeyer) is actually more interested in making voting more difficult. She almost succeeded!

  11. Submitted by E Gamauf on 09/30/2014 - 07:43 am.

    Exhaustion & Dissonance & Laziness, Oh My!

    Its not purely laziness that dissuades people from voting.

    There are several factors that I see, or have heard in anecdote.
    Not the least of which is lack of personal investment in the process.

    People like to see results as a consequence of their actions.
    They have to do so in their daily lives, after all.

    All the noodling & dodging & flip-flopping of politicians works to convince people they really don’t matter, or that their time invested in the process is wasted. White Noise.

    For example, we get told by Speaker Boehner that the most important crisis that needs to be addressed is debate & a direction about the middle east:

    Oh yeah, but NOT until next January!!!

    Why is it a crisis we should all fret about at the end of the day,
    when he’s back on vacation, a 2nd hiatus — for the next 6 weeks?

    The system is at fault, too.

    Lacking indicators to mark our social progress produces a sense of dissonance.
    Too often the result is for voters to lump the good guys & the not-so-good guys together, as though they are of equal merit, or equally culpable.

    That’s just not true.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/30/2014 - 07:52 am.

      As you say, the linkage between elections and final actions is too loose for enthusiastic participation.

      People who vote and expect a rapid change of direction inevitably are disappointed.

      “American Idol” understands this.

      America does not.

      • Submitted by E Gamauf on 09/30/2014 - 09:06 am.

        More Than A Prompt Feedback

        Impatience, Exasperation & wanting to immediately see something different,
        even if they don’t know what that different really is, does — isn’t the whole of it either.

        That description defines some of the people jumped aboard the “Tea Party” bandwagon.
        (And yet, we must ignore that people who RUN under that banner are not a party unto themselves, don’t necessarily represent the new constituency & they ultimately run as Republicans – they really aren’t a new creature, mostly just a new wrapper to co-opt voters).

        A lot of people don’t know the detail of many of the issues.
        I can’t say that I always do.

        That either makes them feel poorly qualified to decide & they conscientiously opt out, not understanding where their best interests really lie.

        Or, conversely, it makes some feel ultra-important to decide by voting without having to bother to understand the issues.

        Maybe we should be concerned about the lack of intellectual curiosity all the time people are NOT voting, instead. How easily we can be misled. Candidate dishonesty should make us angry.

        We can be instant & momentary experts in the voting booth,
        even if we don’t having the vaguest clue of the record of the judges on the ballot, for instance.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/30/2014 - 08:56 am.

      Good and Not so good

      How would someone score these?

  12. Submitted by Elsa Mack on 09/30/2014 - 08:18 am.

    Local politics

    I wonder if the poor coverage of local politics that we get in this age of mass media could be a major contributor to the lack of voter interest in the US. We hear very little about races for school board, park board, state legislature, state house. In national media, of course, these are not covered, since they are not national news, and sadly that’s all some people watch; but local races rarely get much coverage even in the MSP papers (Minnpost does better, happy to say). I think if people were more often presented with issues regarding their local schools, parks, roads, etc., they would probably make more effort to vote.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/30/2014 - 10:46 am.

      Catch 22

      Media presents what we like to watch, read, listen to, etc.
      That is what attracts an audience and advertisers.

      It is kind of like a school board or pto meeting, no one is interested or attends until someone proposes closing the local elementary school. With so many things going on in our lives, people usually let the staus quo stay on autopilot.

      Which would indicate that many citizens are satisfied with America just the way it is.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/04/2014 - 02:03 pm.

      TV has almost completely given up on local news

      unless there is a crime, a fire, severe weather, or a “cute” story about a lost dog or a precocious child.

      Public broadcasting partly fills this gap, but a large segment of the population has been brainwashed to believe that public broadcasting is “biased” (when, actually, ALL news sources are biased in one way or another), and so they never hear anything about what is going on in their own community.

      This is especially the case if they are like the people in the coffee shop who approach me asking if I’m finished reading the paper and who, when I hand it to them, say, “No, I just want the sports pages.”

      (Side note: If Marx were alive today, he’d say “Pro sports are the opiate of the people.”)

      This state of affairs is a tragedy for public life in America, because most voters pay attention only during presidential election years, vote for the candidate they like on a personal level, and then tune out for another four years. Yet it’s the municipal, county, school board, and state elected officials who have a greater effect on their everyday lives than the president does.

  13. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 09/30/2014 - 08:25 am.

    Quick Thoughts

    1) If Italy, Belgium and Greece are the top three, then maybe voter participation isn’t a good yardstick of a healthy system.
    2) The idea that voter turnout is lowered by the argument that ‘too much government is bad’ doesn’t pass the eye test. If voters didn’t turn out because they wanted smaller government, then we’d see a big Dem advantage in the non-Presidential years. That’s exactly the opposite of the pattern we see.
    3) It’s hard to see how non-proportional representation would drive down votes in the off elections too. Votes for House seats could be driven down because House districts are increasingly tied specifically to one party or the other. On the other hand, Senate seats cannot be gerrymandered.
    4) The obvious answer for why participation drops by such a huge amount is that voters (for good or bad reasons) think that only the vote for President really matters.
    5) This may be because the Presidency gets so much media attention that it is the most understood by more casual voters.
    6) It could be because the President has so much power that voters see House and Senate votes as unimportant.
    7) It could be because a large pool of voters don’t really understand how power works in our complicated system.

    Points 5-7 aren’t mutually exclusive.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/30/2014 - 12:27 pm.

      Thoughts on quick thoughts

      You are correct about point 5. Although there is plenty of coverage of local elections, the average person pays no attention to it because it isn’t coming from one of the mass media outlets. TV stations in most markets are not going to cover local city council elections except in larger cities (and, based on the coverage of Minneapolis and St. Paul city halls by local stations, what coverage there is stinks).

      I don’t know that it’s an interest in smaller government that keeps voters away as much as it is a claimed disdain for any government. There are substantial numbers of people who affect disdain for elections (“I never vote for those crooks”), politics, or government in any form. In the old days of print media, you heard these people loudly proclaiming that all they read in the paper was the sports pages. This thinking has nothing to do with any principled libertarianism, or any ideology at all, but from an indifference to anything that is not right in front of their faces now.

      Your point 7 would be more accurate if you changed it to “a large pool of people.”

      • Submitted by E Gamauf on 10/01/2014 - 06:29 am.

        The Question is “Why Do So Few PARTICIPATE”

        Our suppositions may be likely and valid, however the best offered is our opinion of why other people do, or don’t do – what they do, without corroborative evidence. We can wax on.

        Sports writer EPILOG
        If one riffs off your “all they read is the sports pages,” then I would offer the observation that this is because sports contests are complete mini-dramas of their own, with clearly defined character roles, simple goals and a clear finish to the event & resulting story. One dusts off & goes home.

        Local elections are the minor leagues and we are trained to pay most attention to the majors.
        Maybe we need to build more ballparks & coliseums.

        I don’t think it will get us a well functioning government to make it a sports contest.

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 10/01/2014 - 08:05 am.

        Never Vote for those Crooks

        RB, you could be right that simple discouragement with our political class is keeping people from participating. That’s a different argument than the one put forth above that the smaller government arguments from Reagan, et al, are keeping people home. I don’t know if that’s true or not.
        There is a libertarian strain of thought that the act of voting simply encourages the bad actors in politics. I’ve never found that convincing, personally, but it’s out there. In a related sense, the only way that a true anti-war voter can keep from voting for a ‘war president’ is to NOT VOTE. That must present a rather large problem of conscience.

        Your phrasing on point 7 is better.

  14. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/02/2014 - 03:22 pm.

    winning elections

    It’s as simple as this. If the candidates I vote for win their elections, will the policies they favor be implemented? If not, what’s the point of voting?

  15. Submitted by John Farrell on 10/06/2014 - 12:45 pm.

    Doesn’t history suggest turnout was not a priority?

    The Framers may not have wanted low turnout among eligible voters, but they had a very narrow vision of what an eligible voter should be (white, male, property holder). It seems like the system depended heavily on those with a vested economic interest in the outcome (landowners) to participate. If that’s still true, it may be that folks don’t see their economic outcome reflected in their vote.

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