The right to vote, along with the freedom of speech, is a fundamental element of democratic political systems. Main intention of this essay is to examine literature and surf the web in order to provide a personal-opinionated answer to a question: Why do Americans vote the way they do? A question may be broken down into segments, each of a different meaning, yet same great significance towards Americans’ attitude towards voting. For example, why do Americans vote the way they do or rather why is there such low electoral turnout, in other words why so many Americans don’t vote?
America’s voter turnout has been significantly lower than in many other states throughout the recent years. For example, Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward prove this fact in their Voter Turnout Percentages in Democratic Nations (Most Regent Major National Elections as of 1983 Table1. Voter Turnout in States (53%) is much lower than that of Belgium (95%), Luxembourg (89%), United Kingdom (76%) and others, setting it on 23rd place among other major democratic nations.
So why the world’s strongest and richest state is so casual when it comes to choosing its leader? Only a little more than half of the eligible population votes in presidential elections and fewer still vote in off-year elections. Moreover, those who vote are different in important respects from those who do not. Voters are better off and better educated, and non-voters are poorer and less well educated. Higher education means higher political capability. According to Piven and Cloward, this has been true for the most of XXth century.
It is believed that higher percentage of well-educated citizens will lead to government take citizen’s opinions into account when making decisions, which in turn will affect citizens’ belief that they can affect the way the government works2. There are some voting generalizations that are based mainly on differences between age, minority and gender groups3. For example, it is believed that voting is more frequent to middle-aged people, it is a class-based activity, whites vote with greater frequency than blacks and hispanic people and people who work for the government are more likely to vote.
Luckily society seemed to have overstepped the barrier between male and female population voting ratios in the recent years (that being mainly the second half of XXth century). So what influences the way Americans vote? A recent poll ran by The California Voting Foundation (CFV) found that family and friends influence how infrequent voters decide to vote as much as daily newspapers and TV news.
Among infrequent voters, 65 percent said conversations with their families and local newspapers were “influential sources of information when it comes to making voting decisions”4. Network TV news rated as influential among 64 percent, followed by cable TV news at 60 percent, and conversations with friends at 59 percent. Apparently, more than half of the infrequent voters surveyed, phone calls and door-to-door contact by political campaigns are not influential sources of information when deciding how to vote.
Experience shows that in choosing a preferred candidate Americans pay much attention to public image and experience, rather than promises and size of electoral campaigns. For example, post election polls showed that Reagan (1980) did not win because of his campaign broadsides against big government, but because of popular discontent with the Carter administration’s policies especially anger over high rates of unemployment5. Now this is something to be considered by candidates when planning out campaigning agenda.
There are a few other significant reasons for why voting turn out is so low in America. For one, it is not obligatory, like, for example, in Italy and Australia. This gives Americans freedom of choice, however, nonvoting contributes to the “health of a democratic polity” (Piven and Cloward, 13) and should therefore be semi-compulsory. There are also ‘costs’ (not monetary) involved in voting, which means hassle and a large share of population would simply not bother with turning up.
After all, there is registration one has to go through, US elections tend to be held on weekdays, which means taking time off work, potential voters may have to wait in lines to vote and finally, silliness like Federal elections being held in cold November. Not so silly when these factors are gathered up to provide data that shows 53% voter turnout. Then there is a historical aspect. Groups relatively recently granted the right to vote, at one time did not (women) or still do not (young people and minorities) vote in proportion to their share of population.
In addition to historical and time aspects, there’s a fact that many people don’t see much difference between candidates, don’t sympathize with any of the candidates or like them all, which means that whoever wins makes no difference to those that vote. So why do Americans vote the way they do? Such a general question, is it asking why they vote for the candidates they do or is it enquiering about their elections system or is it still about the low turnout?
Turning to statistics again, extracted from New Yorker article, seventy per cent of Americans cannot name their senators or their congressman. Forty-nine per cent believe that the President has the power to suspend the Constitution. Only about thirty per cent name an issue when they explain why they voted the way they did, and only a fifth hold consistent opinions on issues over time6. Rephrasing poll questions reveals that many people don’t understand the issues that they have just offered an opinion on.
This once again proves the point that generally, public in States is simply not aware of candidate/parties actions and deeds untill the elections come round and they get informed with pressure by meadia, public appearances and such and such. So to draw a conclusion from the facts listed it could be said that Americans vote the way they do – poorly – is because they are generally uninformed of candidates’ activities and issues that do not come under Major Issues category and therefore can not identify the importance of work being done by one or other candidate.
Another reason is those non-monetary ‘costs’ mentioned previously, attending elections is time-consuming, some even believe that their vote will not even make a difference in the final counts. To change people’s attitude towards voting, society must change the way it perceives itself, if people believe in power to change or/and rule the system, they will want to affect own lives by attending the elections, but in the end this is all theory.