According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, the United States places twenty-sixth out of thirty-two advanced democracies in terms of voter turnout. Experts say that low turnout undercuts democracy at home by allowing politicians to play to their base and ignore the needs of groups that consistently don’t vote. In addition, low turnout harms the United States’ reputation as a champion of democracy abroad. The forces that contribute to this problem are manifold, including apathy, declining voter education, political gamesmanship, and systemic issues of disenfranchisement and voter suppression.
In this episode, three experts examine the problem and contrast the United States’ complex voting system with methods that have led to far better turnout abroad, such as Australia’s system of mandatory voting.
“How Will U.S. Elections Be Judged by Other Democracies?,” James McBride
From the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
“U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout,” Pew Research Center
“Voter Turnout Trends around the World [PDF],” Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance
“The 100 Million Project: The Untold Story of American Non-Voters [PDF],” Knight Foundation
“Americans will head to the polls in a week. Here’s why some won’t.,” Washington Post
“Voting Rights Act,” Brennan Center for Justice
“A History of the Voting Rights Act,” American Civil Liberties Union
Watch or Listen
“Which Countries Have the Highest Voter Turnout?,” Council on Foreign Relations
“Why Americans Don’t Vote (and What to Do About It),” New York Times
Hi, my name is Helga and I’m from Iceland. Election day in Iceland is always on a Saturday and the government encourages people to vote. Election day is also always in the summertime, so no one is weather-trapped or can’t make it because of bad weather conditions.
Hi everyone, my name is Fatima. I’m from Ecuador and I just want to let you know a little bit about how voting is on election day. It’s actually mandatory to vote, which I think is great, and on that day you get an appointment on a location that you need to vote on. Normally it happens on Sundays. You don’t really get a lot of lines because it’s already pre-registered with your ID number. The polls happen continuously around the day, and then you get the results at the end of the day.
Voting is one of the few things that I actually remember really clearly from my early childhood. Our polling place was in my elementary school, which was closed for the occasion, so this meant it was all dim and quiet. My mom would take me into the booth and she would close the curtain behind us. And there was this air of excitement, you know, and seriousness in there. She’d tell me which candidates to choose and I would flip the heavy switches and then at the very end we would pull the lever together.
In the United States, only 55 percent of the eligible population voted in the 2016 election. In terms of a test grade, that’s a hard fail, and one that puts us far behind most of the democratic world.
There’s a certain irony there. The U.S. is the world’s oldest modern democracy. Over the centuries it inspired dramatic democratic shifts across the globe - and its constitution was regularly used as a model in the process. And yet now, after teaching so much, the U.S. finds itself with a lot to learn on a key democratic function.
My name is Gabrielle Sierra, and this is Why It Matters. Today, why the United States lags on voter turnout and what can be done.
Laura Flanders: 00:00 "The most important election in a generation is fast approaching." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtEEjSS6pNA
TODAY Show: 00:02 "America’s most basic civic duty can and will go on." https://youtu.be/LFgAy1df6Ic?t=2
Chasing News: 00:00 "Election day." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QigbwlMvSvE
KRIS 6 News: 00:11 "Election day." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqpdxEHUKao&feature=youtu.be&t=11
Associated Press: 00:08 "Election day in America." https://youtu.be/1XNdJGeM444?t=8
There is no question that when more citizens of a democracy are invested in that democracy through the act of voting that democracy is more legitimate, it's more functional.
I'm David Becker. I'm the executive director and founder for the Center for Election Innovation and Research in Washington, DC. We're a nonpartisan nonprofit that works with election officials all over the country and all across the political spectrum to make elections that are more secure and accessible for all American voters.
And I think it's also important to note that the adversaries of democracy—autocracies around the world—want citizens and democracies to disengage. They want them to believe that they cannot trust their election outcomes, that their elected leaders are illegitimate, and the democracy is not working as a form of government. And that's why it's more important than ever, that the world's democracies fight against these things and work to get their citizens engaged and involved.
Gabrielle, I think voter turnout is a sign of people's engagement with democratic politics. So by itself, it's a key indicator of the health of a democracy.
This is Rosalind Dixon, professor of law at the University of New South Wales in Sydney - which is coincidentally my study abroad alma mater. She is also a visiting professor at Harvard Law School.
But it's also really important to making sure that politics functions to meet the needs of citizens. If people don't turn out to vote, their voices aren't heard, their needs are less likely to be factored in, in the democratic process. And that's particularly important if there's a systematic skew, whereby some voters time after time, don't show up, politicians start counting on that, and they don't design policies around those citizens' needs.
I like to just do that reality check and really situate the United States in a global framework. And I think it's sobering to see that, in so many respects, we deem the United States to be one of the leading democracies across the globe but we're not when it comes to voter participation and voter turnout by any stretch.
My name is Kristen Clark. I'm the President and Executive Director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
And that's because we make it really hard. We make it really hard for people to get registered, we make it hard for people to vote, we make it hard for them to stay on the rolls, and we have very fractured systems where we've got 50 states that all have their own separate rules and approaches. And, you know, it's unlike other major democracies around the globe that have more uniform systems, and that are really about making it easy for people to participate.
In a presidential election we'll normally see about 60 percent of eligible voters participate. That's the high watermark in general for voter turnout. In other elections, such as midterm elections, the elections for Congress in between presidential elections, we’ll normally see turnout around 40 percent, give or take. And then in a primary election it might only be about 25 or 30 percent. And since those are split between the parties, Democratic and Republican parties, in order to win a primary election, it might actually be a very small number of voters who have actually selected the candidate that is going to be one of the two who will become president. And that's exactly what we saw in 2016. Only about fifteen million people in the Republican Party voted for Donald Trump to be their nominee. And yet, because of how primaries work, that was enough votes for him to advance to the general election as the Republican nominee. And to be perfectly honest, Secretary Clinton got about the same number of votes and achieved the Democratic nomination. So this is where people opting out of voting, whether by choice or just inertia, can make a big difference.
According to a 2018 PEW study, Belgium has the world’s best rate of voter participation, with 87 percent. Sweden is right behind with nearly 83 percent. Denmark and Australia also top the charts. The United States, again, sits at 55 percent, placing 26th out of 32 advanced democracies. There are no simple answers about why. But part of the problem is that many Americans don’t even attempt to vote.
I think, for many voters, they just don't know what the point of their vote is, why does it matter? And we've had a hard time articulating why their vote matters. Your vote doesn't matter because you're likely to cast the one ballot that's going to be the deciding vote in a race, almost nobody is going to ever vote in a race where one vote is going to choose. It happens, but it happens extremely rarely.
If you ask voters in the United States if they're registered and if they vote, more will say they are registered and more will say they vote than actually do. In other words, some are lying. And some people get depressed about that, I actually think that's a good sign, it means that people already know that something they should do. They don't need to be convinced that voting is a good thing. They don't need to be convinced that participation is a good thing. But they're not doing it, and that tells me that we just need to get them more engaged. You know, why do one-third of the voters who participate in the presidential election not participate two years later in a congressional election? We don't really have a good answer for that and that's literally tens of millions of people. About forty to fifty million people didn't participate in 2014 after they did vote in 2012. They were mostly registered. They mostly knew about the election. They knew how to vote. They'd use the technology, but they didn't show up. These are all things we really need to figure out and we don't have great answers on.
There is no single explanation for non-voters, and experts like David Becker have dedicated their careers to understanding the question. That said, there are some trends. The Knight Foundation’s 100 Million Project found that 38 percent of non-voters feel that the election systems are rigged, that their vote has no impact, and that the U.S. government does not represent the will of the people.
Additionally, non-voters reported that they don’t engage as actively with news, and feel that they are not equipped with enough information to vote.
Knight Foundation 00:17 I don’t think I’m gonna vote because I’m not informed on anything. I haven't done any research so I feel like my vote’s gonna be wasted.
I feel like being young and voting, people will judge you for it because you’re not educated enough about the whole voting process.
I don't think my vote matters. I think the whole thing is predetermined. The idea of voting is kinda like a, like a scheme.
Studies like the 100 Million project point to deep psychological and educational barriers to voting. Beyond these, according to experts, there are also several systemic factors that can stand in the way even after someone decides to vote. One of these problems is that in the United States voting can be...complex.
We get a lot of calls to our 866 Our Vote hotline from people asking basic things like “What's the deadline for registering to vote?” “How do I register?” “Can you register to vote online?” “Can I get access to an absentee ballot? Am I eligible?” I think that we can do a much better job at voter education. But then there's a different form of voter education and that's really understanding what you need to cast an effective ballot. Are there going to be three or four ballot amendments that require that you read through a long narrative and vote yes or no? There's this phenomenon in our country where we see huge drop-offs as people make their way down the ballot. In a presidential election year, you may see very high participation rates at the presidential level, maybe for your state governor, and then just a huge drop off as you get down to things like the State Commissioner on Education and the Tax Assessor and the Sheriff, these are positions that absolutely have impact on our day to day lives.
Right. So I probably shouldn't be standing outside my polling place, Googling what each of these positions, even does, let alone the name of the candidates that are up for it.
I've found myself in that position, too, where I'm whipping out my phone, you know, at the ballot box here in DC. But some states actually impose time limits on how long you can stay inside and vote. So you only have so much time to do that research on the spot. Yeah.
Sometimes when you see media coverage of long lines for early voting, let's say in Georgia, or elsewhere, you might hear people say, you know, “This is democracy in action! These people are patiently waiting to have their voices heard!” You know, what are the problems with those lines?
They discourage people. I went to my bank the other day and there was a line that stretched halfway down the block. I turned around, I didn't have what looked to be like an hour, hour and a half to wait that line out. So these lines that you see during our elections, to me, are heartbreaking. I understand that kind of reaction of it being a sign that democracy is alive and you know, people are participating in high numbers, and that's part of the story. But the other part, when you when you look closely, is that oftentimes there are breaks in the system. Georgia is one example of that. Georgia was a mixed tale of people really turning out historic numbers, but we dealt with the complaints. People who told us about sites that just were not up and ready in the morning, poll books that were not working so people couldn't get checked in properly. So, you know, officials often are not coming through for voters in the way that we need them to.
Do you think that there's an argument that making voting easier also makes the process more susceptible to fraud?
I've got a good friend, Justin Levitt, who teaches out in California who determined that you've got a better chance of being struck by lightning than seeing fraud play out in our elections. These claims about vote fraud are really used and touted as a narrative to drive fear, to create the impression that we need to have really strict rules and burdensome requirements that make it super hard for people to vote to prevent fraud. There really just is no evidence of fraud being a widespread problem in our country and it's just a distraction from the real problem, which is that there are far too many Americans who don't vote, who can't vote, who are unable to vote, because of the enormous obstacles and burdens that we put in their way.
These obstacles are part of a long history.
Voting in our country has always been hotly contested ground. Our nation has a fraught history of denying Black people access to the ballot, denying women access to the ballot for a period of time, and we've had a long struggle to try and push for all communities to gain full access to the franchise.
I mean, it is literally fifty-five years ago that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. And that was passed because a very large percentage of American citizens were not seeing the promise of their vote realized.
The Voting Rights Act was signed into law at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and it prohibited racial discrimination in voting. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down parts of the law. Some saw this as a victory for states’ rights. Many others have seen it differently.
The court basically brought to a grinding halt a core piece of the Voting Rights Act that applied to parts of our country that had very long and egregious histories of voting discrimination. Many states in the south like Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, were included as well and a number of other states. But before they could make changes to voting, before they could purge people from the rolls, before they could shut down polling sites, they had to get federal review, largely carried out by the Justice Department. And that federal review process looked to see whether the voting change would harm or worsen the position of Black voters, Latino voters, and other voters of color. And that provision of the law was remarkable in blocking and deterring a lot of voter suppression and a lot of voting discrimination. And since that Supreme Court ruling, we've literally just seen the floodgates of voter suppression open up across our country. And it's resulted in a lot of setbacks, a lot of reversals in progress, and a lot of litigation by civil rights organizations, like my own. We are we are fighting to make sure that all communities are able to have voice in our democracy.
When it comes to overall turnout in the United States, issues of race, gender and vote suppression are very real factors. But there’s a lot of other important factors, too. There’s the complex psychology of what actually leads someone to exercise their vote. And a vast system of differing local rules to navigate. It’s a lot! And there are some great resources in the show notes if you want to dig deeper. But, it’s also worthwhile to look outward at what other countries are doing that seems to be working for them. Take… Australia.
Australia has a record of close to 100% turnout, which is one of the things we're very proud of. Voting in Australia is compulsory. And what that means is that you have a legal obligation to vote in every election, state, federal and local. You have a choice between paying a penalty and showing up to vote. And the penalty is actually not very high. It's around $100. And you can write a letter and explain why you can't pay it or why you had a good reason for not voting. So, you know, many countries, indeed dozens of countries around the world, have mandatory voting. But, they have high turnout and much higher turnout than the US, but something quite, distinctly lower than Australia. So the mandate alone is not the explanation.
So it's not just the mandatory voting law. How would you categorize the major factors that have led to such a high turnout in Australia?
Well, I think voting in Australia is relatively easy, it's made to be as enjoyable as possible as a kind of social practice, and there's a strong social norm that voting is expected as a responsibility of citizenship.
So, Australia’s recipe for turnout actually has four ingredients. Mandatory voting, sure. But also, easy voting. A shared sense of civic responsibility and something you might not expect. Enjoyable voting.
When we say enjoyable, what do you mean? Like, it's fun to vote? Or it's a big party, like what do you mean, enjoyable?
Closer to a party. Now, you know, in COVID, there are no parties, right? But the tradition in Australia is you show up at your local polling station on a weekend, there are people there handing out how to vote cards, but there's also like a hotdog stand and a cake stall and you see people from the neighborhood. So it's closer to a potluck. And there's definitely a sense that you go up, you can take your kids and your dog and you can see your neighbors and chat; not just, you know, show up in a line. And that's part of what makes it easy, right? You show up and you're like, this is actually kind of pleasant. I'll see my neighbors, I'll have a chat and it's not a chore. It's almost like Fourth of July in terms of the degree to which people have made it fun and you know, something that's part of the social fabric.
Hotdogs aside, to many Americans, a mandatory voting law could feel like a constraint on freedom. But many Australians have come to see the law as more of a signpost than a constraint, something that builds voting into the social fabric by establishing a sense of shared responsibility.
So law can do two things. One is it can really coerce people to do the right thing when they want to do otherwise, right, it can be a really important kind of moral and coercive force. But sometimes law just coordinates our behavior. So whether we drive on the left or the right-hand side of the road, something I've had to remind myself of from time to time living in the US and Australia, is not something anyone wants to get wrong. No one wants to be in a head-on collision, right? So the law tells us to drive on the left or the right-hand side. But it's not really needing to coerce us, it's just sending a signal to people of what's expected so we can all coordinate and get it right. And on one view, that's what mandatory voting laws do in Australia and elsewhere, they don't actually force us to do the right thing. They just send a signal to citizens that everyone's going to vote. And so the social norm is we all show up.
And this brings us to the final ingredient, “ease.”
I think, actually, all of them are mutually reinforcing, but I think it's the most important, so it is always on a weekend. And they make sure it's not on a weekend that clashes with some major event. So you cannot have it on the day of a major sporting final, for instance, because then people would be outraged that they have to miss the sporting finals. There's really good pre-polling, there's good postal voting. So basically, you almost never wait more than about 15 to 30 minutes. And there's a sense in which that is linked to pretty effective controls on voter suppression. So they don't make it really hard to prove identity and to get the vote counted. And for regular full-time workers, it doesn't clash with work, you don't have to, you know, have a boss who supports you, you can just show up to vote.
So beyond bragging rights, why does high turnout even matter?
One of the things that happens when you have a system where everyone votes is that politicians modify their own behaviors in their own policies to respond to the likelihood that there will be large turnout, and that they are appealing to the median voter and not simply their base. And that's one of the best parts of a system of compulsory voting is it drives the kind of policy behaviors from major parties that are truly about serving ordinary folks and the median voter, not the extreme polls of our polity, and only seeking to appeal to a party space.
I think it's important to note the similarities between the US and Australia, but also the idea that every country is ultimately different. Australia is not the US, the US is not Australia, we're a 10th of the size, we have more of a mix of American and social democratic traditions. But I do think there's really important similarities. We are a federal system that borrowed heavily from the United States, we have the same common law tradition and set of constitutional guarantees around judicial independence. And we have a degree of cultural similarity, which is, we're much more pro-free market and individual responsibility than Canada, for instance, right? So I always think of Australia as kind of midway between Canada and the US culturally, we have more of a welfare state, we have more of a sense of collective responsibility for the people who fall through the cracks. But we're more free market and entrepreneurial. And we're more American in our sense of the frontier and a sense of entrepreneurship. But you know, we're not the same. And no country is the United States. You cannot find a country that's identical. So, you know, I think, Gabrielle, you've spent some time in Australia, you would see it as similar and different. But I would say the Australian model has lots of downsides in other contexts, but this is one of our absolute best exports.
So Australia is full of good ideas. And it seems like they’re working. But what seems easy and natural in one country can be quite difficult to implement in another. After the break, we turn to David Becker to discuss the feasibility of adopting Australia’s examples. But first, a few more global Why It Matters listeners on voting around the world.
Hi my name is Rebecca, and I am a Singapore citizen and I voted for the first time in our general election this year. Voting is fairly straight-forward in Singapore, voting is mandatory so we always get a turnout of about 97 percent.
Voting in Kenya can be very intimidating. We have a very long history of election-related violence. You’re likely to encounter very very long lines, normally when you vote you are also asked to give your fingerprints so anybody who votes has blue ink on their hands for a couple of days.
In the UK until 2011, a Prime Minister could call an election whenever they wanted. Since then though, we have had scheduled general elections that take place every five years on the first Thursday in May. One odd quirk about the UK system, is that you don’t need ID to vote.
In Switzerland we’ve had mail-in voting for years now, I haven’t voted in person in, probably, 25 years. We are also automatically registered to vote when we turn 18, so the whole process is super easy.
And we are back. So, as promised, let’s ask David Becker about some of the ingredients that combine to make Australian voting such a success, and see if he thinks they can work in the States.
So, first one is instituting a national voter holiday or weekend voting.
One of the things I worry about is there's other things that go along with a national holiday — there are school closures, public transportation office often is on a reduced schedule, and hourly employees who are often the people who we most want to hear from, whose voices are not as loud as they could be, they often might be incentivized to work more by earning more wages on a national holiday than they would on an ordinary day.
How about a national voting registry, one of these magic lists that you mentioned?
That's very common in most established democracies in the world. We have never had that in the United States. And in fact, we rely upon individual state voter lists. And that's actually even fairly a recent development, up until about fifteen years ago, many states still retained lists solely at the county or local level. And so having fifty state voter lists, and often trying to integrate that with a motor vehicles agency, which is probably one of the data sources that has the most people in it can be really helpful, but it's not as good as a unified citizen registry. So I think there's a couple of barriers to this, one coming from the right and one coming from the left. I think the right is reasonably concerned about issues related to privacy and federalism in creating a single national master database of all citizens. And I think the left is worried that such a database could be used to cause difficulties or even deport people who may not be citizens, whether they're here legally or not.
Okay last one, what about mandatory voting as something that the US could implement?
There are some who talk about some kind of compulsory voting requirements in the United States and whether it's possible. Again, I'm not against it. I think it's highly unlikely. I think we have some things like the First Amendment that possibly collide with that. Although there’ve been some suggestions about ways to avoid First Amendment free speech-compelled speech kind of issues, and they're thoughtful approaches. But I will tell you, I just don't think there's any political will to move in that direction right now. I don't think it's highly likely that we'll see that in the United States anytime soon. And I think, you know, I'm going to focus my efforts on making compulsory voting moot, because people want to vote. And that's what I'd like to see done more. And I think, and as I said, we're still learning about that so much, that's going to take a lot of time.
There’s no silver bullet. In Australia, these policies are part of a social fabric that has grown organically around them. America has its own culture, and its own norms, and that means that no single policy from another country can fix the problem. If you try to import the rule without the social norms, you’re in for trouble.
And that leads to a deeper question - how do you change a voting culture? Not just for a single, dramatic election, but in the long term, across the spectrum?
I think there's pretty good evidence that civic education in the United States has gone down over the course of the last forty to fifty years. This has been in conjunction with efforts to delegitimize our democratic system. I mean, there has been efforts to portray our system of democracy as simply a game with winners and losers and they're playing the game against each other, and they're trying to get whatever advantage they can. That's not a very constructive way to run a democracy. This is more than a game. So we have to take it a little more seriously and reject efforts to portray this as a horse race. You know, we're in litigation right now where we see a lot of rules being changed in the election process by people who think that certain rules will benefit or harm their party prospects. Look, that's just simply wrong. And we have to be willing to accept a world where our candidates might lose and accept that that is an important democratic lesson. If we have 100 percent turnout and my preferred candidate loses, I consider that a big win. And we're not even close to there right now.
I think about 2020, I mean, this is a moment where people are, marching and protesting in ways that we've not seen previously for a response to the crisis of police violence and racial violence that has long gripped our nation. These marches and protests, I think, are signs of hope for long-overdue reform. But I wonder if people also realize that their votes are another powerful weapon for achieving reform on those issues. So you know, do people understand that the district attorney is an elected position, right, and that district attorney is the one that's looked to decide whether or not to prosecute an officer who used deadly force without basis on an unarmed African American? Do people understand that the mayor is the one that often gets to decide who serves as police chief? So when I think about voter education, I'm thinking about getting people access to accurate information. And I'm also thinking about empowering people so that they understand what their votes mean. And, you know, I often hear from people as I travel and do this work that, who's occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue doesn't impact whether or not I can get food on the table, or whether I'm able to get a job, and I do think that for those folks there is a little bit of work to do in understanding how power manifests itself.
In an ideal democracy, everyone understands the power of their vote, and everyone uses it. And look, of course there are no ideal democracies, each comes with its flaws.
But it’s worth noting that the same countries that top the voter turnout list - Australia, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden for example- also top the most trusted global indices for quality of life and democratic freedoms. Correlation is not causation, but the trendline is there. And that may be because high turnout forces politicians to come up with policies that address the needs of large groups of people, rather than the needs of their followers.
But to get there, you need an electorate with a shared educational baseline.
I think we're doing better in many ways than we've ever done before. But I think we need to educate our children and educate our media about what the end goal of democracy is. The end goal of democracy is not a period of time during which you can stand on the top pedestal and be declared the winner. The end goal of democracy is to better living conditions and the environment for our fellow citizens. And if democracy doesn't serve that role, then we have to ask ourselves, why are we engaged in it? And that's, of course, what our adversaries want. There are people who are in power solely because they subvert any efforts of democracy in their country. And they benefit from that, and so when we doubt that, they win.
What reforms would you most like to see?
So, I think one of the things I'm seeing from this election cycle is theres such an effort to try to game the system and change the rules close to an election, when the political dynamics are largely set. And what I'd like to see in an off-year when the political dynamics are still very vague, we're not sure who's going to be benefited by certain things, an effort to bring Republicans and Democrats together to try to establish some common rules for the process. I think our decentralization is good in many ways. But I do think we probably need to do more to establish a national floor. In other words, what's a minimum that every state can do? Every state should probably offer no-excuse mail voting options. Every state should probably offer some degree of early voting. Every state should allow for correction of problems with ballots to some degree. And probably, you know, every state should also have a standard for when ballots are received. And one of the problems we face right now is there's no federal law that says these things, and it's not in the Constitution. And so there's a lot of vagueness, and I think one of the things I'd like to see during the off years is an effort to try to resolve some of these issues and avoid some of this litigation by the parties who are trying to game the system one way or the other. The rules should be set well before we start playing, and we're not really quite there. We probably experience a lot more pre- and post-election litigation than almost any other country.
I would love to see same-day voter registration. There are, you know, a lot of people who I think, miss out on the opportunity to vote because of just really restrictive timelines for getting registered. In states that have same-day registration like Minnesota, those states enjoy some of the highest turnout and participation rates in the country. I'd love to see what it would look like if we had voting on weekends in our country, when people have a little bit more flexibility and latitude. I'd love to see automatic voter registration. I'd love to see more voter education and election officials that are kind of really in the 21st century when it comes to how they communicate with voters. I'd love to see pre-registration, kids who can get registered at 16 and 17. And then I'd love to see Congress finally restore the Voting Rights Act.
It's kind of a vicious circle, as our elected leaders at some levels are less representative of our electorate, perhaps the diverse electorate sees less of a connection between them and what government is doing and they check out and don't participate which leads to a furtherance of a less representative set of leaders. And to some degree, we need to break that vicious cycle. And, if we can get more people to turn out more regularly—young people, people of color, people who are not socio-economically advantaged—these are all people who participate in much lower rates, we could see leaders getting elected that represent their interests a little more and in turn those voters will continue to see that their interests are represented and they may be more inclined to participate. And maybe we get into a much more constructive cycle if we can get there.
It’s a hard thing to fix. Especially in the United States, which is larger, messier, and more diverse than many of the countries topping the turnout list. But difficulty is never a good reason not to try.
Low voter turnout creates a gap between what U.S. citizens want and what their government actually does. And that’s true of foreign policy just as much as domestic policy. The more Americans vote, the more our policies on China, trade, climate change, and all the rest reflect the actual world views of American citizens. Low turnout also undercuts our credibility on the world stage, and it allows our adversaries to point out hypocrisy when we support democracy abroad.
I mean, I guess the last message I have is one of optimism and hope. I mean, you know, we've not always done as well as we could here in the United States. We have not always had the level of participation that we could expect. We have not always nominated leaders who reflect our best selves. But we often self-correct. And we often find ways to bring back the best in ourselves at certain points in time. And there have been times when we've seen a dark period followed by a period of hope and a period of participation and engagement. One of the things I'm inspired by every day, as a lot of us are working crazy hours in these last few days of the election, is the American voter. I'm supposed to be giving them information and providing a better system for them, and instead they're giving me inspiration every day. I see lines showing up to vote early. I'm seeing people returning mail ballots in rates they've never done before. I see people educating themselves about a process which is tough. They're in a pandemic. We're experiencing foreign interference and disinformation. I'm continuously inspired by their will to have their voice heard in this election. I'm relatively confident that we're going to see that heard loud and clear. And hopefully within the few days after Election Day, we'll have a really clear direction for this country that is hopeful.
Sérgio Teixeira Jr.
Hello, my name is Sérgio Teixeira Jr. and I am a journalist from Brazil. Voting is mandatory in Brazil, between the ages of 16 and 18 you are allowed to vote but you don’t have to. And in Brazil for decades now we have been voting electronically.
Hi my name is Alexandra and I’m from Sweden. In Sweden elections always take place on Sundays, which means that most people are able to go and vote during the day without having to take time off from work. People are encouraged to vote and some schools even hold their own elections as part of an initiative called Skolval or school election in which students get to vote. These votes aren’t part of the official election, but it gives many young people an insight into the voting process and there are often discussions and events happening around these school elections.
The time has come for me to tell our American listeners to go vote. And that’s just what I’m going to do.
There’s not a single global issue that we’ve discussed on Why It Matters that you don’t have the chance to influence with your vote. Worried about climate change? Vote about it. Want the world to focus on pandemic readiness? Step into the booth.
And when it comes to the problem of turnout, your vote addresses the issue directly. You get to fix it, by voting yourself, and by doing everything you can to encourage those around you to do the same.
So do it. Enjoy it. It’s a powerful thing.
For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/Whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes.
Additionally, CFR has some amazing election-related content so be sure to check out cfr.org/election2020. Know a young voter-to-be who wants to learn more about how the world works? Tell them to check out World 101 - it's a growing library of multimedia resources that explain international affairs and foreign policy issues to learners young and old. It's been a priority for the Council, and it's really worth checking out.
Have an idea? Have some feedback? Want to just say hey? Send us an email at [email protected].
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Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Jeremy Sherlick, Asher Ross, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria and our intern is Senniah Mason. Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Sending endless appreciation to all of the amazing people around the world who gave us their election day descriptions, we loved listening to them.
Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. We also used a snippet of an awesome track by Australian musician Xavier Rudd. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke.
For Why It Matters this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you at the polls!