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And This Little Voter Stayed Home

by on October 31, 2018 5:00 AM


You’re all planning to vote next Tuesday, right?

I ask because, suppression efforts aside, Americans are not the most zealous ballot casters in the world. According to FairVote, about 40 percent of us typically sit out a presidential election. About 60 percent of us typically skip a midterm election.

As you might expect, there are competing explanations for our particularly sorry performance at midterm time. Putting it another way, there’s plenty of blame to go around:

1. Blame the nonvoters:

This is the obvious one. The disparity between presidential and midterm voting patterns suggests that to many voters, the president is a monarch by another name. He (or she) is the one with the power. Everyone else in Washington is a courtier and therefore, not worthy of our attention.

But presiding over the government is not the same as ruling. Though the scoundrel who is presiding currently thinks otherwise, America is not a “l’etat, c’est moi” operation. As long as Congress makes the laws, the composition and control of Congress matters. Therefore, midterm elections matter — this one more than most if you’re worried about, oh, gun violence, hate crimes and environmental catastrophes, to name a few sleep disturbers of the moment.

2. Blame the media:

It’s a truism that the news media cover politics the way they cover sports, and that they cover sports the way they cover war. Whether game or debate, it becomes a clash or a battle. In the parlance of boxing, a presidential election is a heavyweight bout; all other elections are the undercard. And to focus so intently on the presidential candidates is to focus more on personalities and biographies than on positions and proposals.

The good news about the news: The widespread sense that the Trump presidency is a national emergency is causing the news media to pay more attention than usual to the midterms. The bad: Notice the way every presidential hiccup, burp and sneeze is considered newsworthy.

3. Blame our politics:

Here’s Steven Hill, author of “Fixing Elections:  The Failure of America’s Winner-Take-All Politics,” published in 2002:

“Washington, D.C., has emerged as a kind of House of Horrors theme park, with much of what passes for politics today having degenerated into an obnoxiously partisan brew of bickering, spin, hype, petty scandal, name-calling, blaming, money-chasing and pandering.”

Significant numbers of voters peer into the theme park and are scared away. Hill says it might be more accurate to call the United States a “post-democracy, where huge numbers of citizens simply have given up.”  

He is also among the many writers who say the two-party system makes for a narrowly defined political mainstream, dominated by wealthy donors, that is inhospitable to fresh thinking. No argument here. But to all you progressives who are loath to give your precious vote to a Democratic party that hasn’t done enough to earn it, this is not the time for Tweedledum-Tweedledee thinking. Even conservatives – Max Boot and George Will, to name two – have urged their readers to vote Democratic on Tuesday.  

4. Blame the various ways the action and inaction of the powers that be suppress the vote:

Countless ideas have been kicked around that would make voting easier. There’s been talk of moving Election Day from weekday to weekend, or of making it a national holiday, for people whose commutes start before the polls open and end after they close; of automatically registering people to vote when they come of age; of using hack-resistant systems of voting online.

Nothing has come of any of these proposals. Instead, under the guise of preventing voter fraud – largely a phantom problem to begin with – we’re seeing a growing campaign to suppress the vote – especially the minority vote.

As hard as it is to predict the outcome of next Tuesday’s election, we can be certain of this: If the “blue wave” materializes, Trump will blame voter fraud, and if the GOP retains control of Congress, the Democrats will blame voter suppression and gerrymandering.

The Democratic arguments, at least, will have merit, but most of us, in fact, are perfectly capable of making it to the polls. It’s just a matter of whether we choose to do so.

Folks, you cannot be neutral in this election. We are either going to thwart Trump for the next two years or give him a free hand. And yes, the victory margins may be so small that your vote actually will count.
Is it inconvenient to vote? Vote anyway. Are you unimpressed with the candidates or fed up with the two-party stranglehold.? Vote anyway.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was invoked at the memorial service at Old Main on Monday night for the victims of the Tree of Life massacre:

"Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair."

Reject despair. Vote.

Unless you want to live in a post-democracy.


A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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