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We suck at voting

Although a great many changes have made it easier to vote, our overall participation has not gone up. In fact, if anything, it’s drifted down a bit from the 1950s and ’60s. 

REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot

We, the people of the United States of America, suck at voting.

Please don’t take that personally. If you read MinnPost, I suspect you vote regularly and do your civic duty in other ways.

But perhaps, intoxicated as we are with our self-image as the leader of world democracies, we don’t acknowledge often enough how lousy our voter participation rates are compared to others. I’d say we are the worst, or among the worst, in the democratic world, depending on which elections you count. Personally, I would count them all.

We do our best – and even that is pretty lousy by comparison to other nations – in presidential elections. In 2016, 55.7 percent of the voting age population cast a ballot, about the same as in 2012. Those turnouts were basically within the normal range for presidential elections over the past century or more. (Long-term comparisons are greatly complicated by the fact that for much our history only white males over 21 could vote. But, since about 1920, our participation rate in presidential elections has always been between 49 and 62 percent of the eligible population.)

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Although a great many changes have made it easier to vote (things like same-day registration, early voting and no-excuse absentee voting), our overall participation has not gone up and has, if anything, drifted down a bit from the 1950s and ’60s, when it was generally around 60 percent in presidential elections.)

Here is a chart of comparative turnout rates for the 35 developed nations, all democracies, that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. We come in 26th out of 35. The leader is Belgium, with 87.2 percent. (Belgium is small, compared to the U.S., with a population of 11.5 million. But 11.5 million is comparable to many U.S. states, and we don’t have a single state with a voter participation of 87 percent.

Minnesota, which, you will be happy but perhaps not completely surprised to hear, often has the highest voter participation rate of any U.S. state, clocked in at 74.2 percent participation rate in 2016 (which was the best of the states by a very substantial 4-percentage-point margin over runner-up New Hampshire), That’s great, by U.S. standards, but if we were compared with the 35 OECD nations, we would come in 8th.

But, of course, all of the above statistics do the United States the kindness of focusing on presidential elections when, by a very large margin, we vote at much higher rates than we do at midterms (when only the entire the U.S. House, a third of the Senate, and many governorships are also on the ballot).

The election just four weeks ahead is a midterm, which, if history is any guide, means we will be doing well to crack 40 percent turnout nationally. In 2014, the most recent midterm, the national voter participation rate clocked in at an embarrassing 36.4 percent, the lowest in 70 years.

So forgive me for repeating myself: We suck at voting.

Of course, we have other elections, primaries in even-numbered years; municipal elections in odd-numbered years and, to our shame, those numbers are all much lower than any of the numbers above. For example, Pew Research Center reported an overall national turnout of 19.7 in the most recent round of even-numbered-year primaries, which were held to choose nominees for statewide offices and the U.S. Senate (in some states) and the U.S. House (in all states).

19.7 percent.

If that figure sounds a tad pitiful, you should know that Pew praised it as an impressive surge compared with the similar primary season four years earlier, when 13.7 percent of registered voters participated. (And, by the way, those figures just above are not expressed as a percentage of all eligible voters but only of registered voters. So the portion of the total voting age population would be significantly lower.)

Some of you are perhaps thinking our poor numbers in some of these matters are all about nasty voter suppression tactics, which certainly do occur in many states. Republican-controlled states are the chief culprits here, and poor and non-white citizens are the chief targets. I don’t have at hand a figure that might estimate how many potential voters were prevented from or discouraged by tactics in this category, but it would be an exaggeration of that phenomenon to assume that it is the biggest reason our voter participation figures are so bad.

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I’ll close with a couple of words from former President Barack Obama who, whenever he would inspire an audience to boo by talking about what he considered some tactics or false arguments employed by his opposition, would reply: “Don’t boo. Vote.”

He expanded on that notion recently while being interviewed for a recent episode of “The Wilderness” podcast, hosted by his former speechwriter, Jon Favreau. Said Obama:

“My message in this upcoming election is very simple: It’s vote. It’s not that much to ask. … Democrats could and will do even better if every one of your listeners not only votes but makes sure that all your wishy-washy, excuse-making, Internet-surfing, TV-watching, grumbling-but-not-doing-nothing friends and family members get to the polls. Vote.”