The Corner

Elections

Rethinking Voter Turnout

The Registrar of Voters office in San Diego, Calif., October 22, 2018 (Mike Blake/Reuters)

I’ve written tons on my problems with the fetishization of voting. It’s not that I don’t think voting is important, it’s just that I think people draw the wrong conclusions from its importance. To me voting should be the end product of taking your citizenship seriously, not the gateway drug.

There’s no need for me to rehash all of that here, but I did think it was worth pointing something out. Over the years, when I’ve debated these issues, liberals have always told me that low voter turnout is a sign of a dysfunctional or broken democracy. I’ve always responded that the opposite is more likely: Very high levels of voter turnout are very often bad signs; people tend to vote in bigger numbers when they feel things are going very badly in the country.

I don’t want to overgeneralize, there are bad reasons for people not voting too — apathy, cynicism, nihilism, voter-suppression, being chained to a radiator in an abandoned warehouse in the shady part of town, etc. But it’s not hard to see how general satisfaction with the direction of the country might lead many people to not bother voting. Add in the philosophically conservative point of view that says it’s not altogether bad when people think the government in Washington doesn’t matter all that much, and you can see where I’m coming from.

Well, here’s something to noodle. The upcoming midterms may be marked by the biggest turnout in over a half century. I think it’s fair to say that liberal turnout is not attributable to their belief that everything is going great. Just listening to liberals’ own rhetoric, this is not only the most important election in history, but democracy itself is on the ballot.

Meanwhile, until the Kavanaugh fiasco, it looked like turnout among Republicans was going to be lackluster. In other words, what galvanized conservative voters wasn’t a newfound love of a civic ritual, but the sense that Democrats had lost their minds and behaved appallingly. Whether or not you think conservatives are correct in that sentiment is irrelevant to my point. Many Republicans saw it that way. I know there are many members of Trump’s base who think the country is on the right track. But according to pollsters, they seemed unlikely to turn out in huge numbers before the Kavanaugh affair, precisely because they thought they didn’t need to.

So, it seems to me that my point is being demonstrated before our eyes. High voter turnout is not necessarily a sign of societal health and civic engagement, but a sign that people think the country is in peril or at least their slice of it is. And that’s okay. One of the great things about democracy is that we settle these allegedly existential conflicts at the ballot box. I’d much rather the polling stations be filled with pissed-off voters than the streets with pissed-off mobs. My only point is that high voter turnout doesn’t necessarily indicate societal health and low voter turnout doesn’t necessarily indicate the opposite. What matters is why people are showing up at the polls or why they aren’t.

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