Today, voter apathy is at an all time high. During the 2014 election, in almost every state in the union, voter turnout trended lower than usual and in some cases was the lowest participation rate in over 70 years. While our lives do go on and it may seem like our absence at the polls will not have a significant effect in our daily lives, after all candidates still get elected and measure still get decided, the reality is that we’re setting ourselves up for the political equivalent of a fat tail distribution.
Let’s take California as an example. California has over 38 million residents. Of those, over 24 million are eligible to vote; and nearly 18 million of them have registered to vote. However, in the 2014 mid-term elections, just over 7.5 million of them cast a vote. This means that only 41% of registered voters chose candidates and decided issues for the Golden State. Worse yet, that computes to only 30% of California’s eligible voters who participated in the election. Bleakest of all is to think that only 19% of California’s residents spoke for the other 81% in the 2014 mid-term elections. To visualize that a little better, imagine a democratic group consisting of only 10 people, where the group’s decisions are based on what two members decide while the other 8 aren’t even in the room.
It’s no wonder that congress has dismal approval ratings and polls repeatedly show a general sentiment that citizens do not feel like their representatives speak for or represent them. At least in California’s case, the numbers makes it impossible. If less than 20% of the population voted for a representative, then simple math tells us that he/she represents a minority of the population without even taking into account party affiliation. To do so is a very interesting exercise.
Of the 7.5 million votes cast is California, only 4.38 million were cast in favor of Jerry Brown for Governor. 2.92 million Californians voted for his opponent and can rightly say that Jerry is not their desired representative. But the striking fact is that just over 10% of California’s population can actually say, “I support Jerry Brown,” and have a voting pin to prove it. Now, if we return to the visualization of our group of 10. Imagine that the 8 members not present for the vote, enter the room and one person in the group stands up and says, “I’ve elected our next leader.” One might imagine that in such a scenario the larger group may object and question the validity of the “election.” But whether or not you would imagine a democracy working in this manner is becoming less important. Unfortunately, the reality is that voter abstention in the State of California is creating election results that are analogous to our example. Given enough time, this trend will result in a long line of representatives elected by a minority of the states’ residents, passing laws that few people support. If those laws are only targeted at maintaining the support of the minority of voters that are active on a regular basis, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario when the majority of the people who live in California end up being bull dozed by those laws.
Though the reasons for voter apathy are varied and there doesn’t seem to be a clear way to improve voter turnout, one thing is clear. As a democratic society, it is in our best interest to reduce any barriers to voter participation that we can.