When a democracy has very low voting rates it destroys the legitimacy of the ones in power. In the last presidential election, the winning side got 45.9 percent of the votes, which means only 25.6 percent of the voting-age population wanted the current president. This undemocratically-low support creates polarization and conflict.
So why aren’t Americans voting? One explanation of the low turnout is that the system is set up to keep people from voting. Specifically, it keeps poor people away from the polls, who often happen to be ethnic minorities and Democrat voters.
Voters need to be informed about when the election is happening, who is running and what the contestants stand for, which is why education and wealth correlates with high voting rates. This is a natural barrier to participation, but it should be the job of the state to minimize the effects of this unjust connection. Otherwise, the representation will be skewed in favor of the rich.
Instead, the U.S. is doing the exact opposite, and is worsening the inequity. In many states there are multiple barriers to voting. These are all put in place with the excuse that it prevents voter fraud, which is basically nonexistent.
Some of those barriers include having to register to vote months before an election, reducing the voting period and requiring new, hard-to-get forms of photo IDs. These rules prevent voting by the poor and the less educated, because they do not know they are supposed to register and some of them cannot afford to get an ID. In 2016, more than 16 million people in the U.S. did not have a government-issued ID. In North Carolina, that number was more than 300,000 people.
Furthermore, it's not rare to have to wait in line for the voting booths for hours or have to travel far to get to a polling place. On top of that, national elections are all held on Tuesdays, forcing people to choose between voting and going to work. Only those who are very passionate about elections and have the necessary resources are going to go through all those obstacles.
Not only that, research shows that counties with large minority populations have fewer polling sites and poll workers than in majority white counties, making the obstacles far worse for ethnic minorities.
I voted in two different elections back home in Denmark this summer, and both times it took me less than ten minutes from me parking my bike to getting back on it. The commute to the voting booth was also only five minutes, because we have a ton of polling places in the city. On top of that, there’s no separate step to register. Every citizen over the age of 18 automatically receives a ballot in the mail a couple of weeks prior to an election.
Another reason the United States is behind other countries when it comes to turnout is the election system itself. The Winner-takes-all system discourages participation, because a vote for a losing candidate is a lost vote. Why would anyone ever vote if they lived in a non-swing state? Why wait in line for hours just to realize that your party doesn't have a chance? Compare that to a democracy that has proportional representation where the percentage votes for a party is reflected in the percentage of seats in the parliament. That way, fewer votes are wasted and people feel like their vote matters.
Another consequence of the winner-takes-all system is that there are only two political parties. Trying to imagine that two parties are capable of representing more than 327 million different opinions is laughable when you really think about it. I can imagine that it would be hard to find a politician and a party that agrees with almost everything you believe. This could potentially keep citizens from voting as well, and creates a distance between the voters and the elected.
Voting is one of the most fundamental rights in the U.S. and everyone over the age of 18, except felons in some states (that’s a whole other discussion), can legally do it. But in practice, it is only the privileged that can fulfill that duty.
Some ways to raise voter participation could be to establish a national holiday on election day, institute automatic voter registration and make early voting easier. The U.S. should also set up a centralized election authority that administers all elections in the country so there aren’t 8,000 different ways to vote depending on where you live. This agency could then provide general voter information to help decrease the differences in information among economic groups.
But until all of this is changed, you should remember to vote in the upcoming local election on November 5th. The Woman Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement did not fight for universal suffrage for you to stay away from the voting booth, and you should care about exercising that right.