One Person, 2.5 Votes

We hear a lot of comparisons of the United States with other nations in terms of education, healthcare, economics, and dozens of other outcomes. These comparisons provide a frame of reference for us. They give us a way of "seeing how we're doing."

One area that is not often discussed in these comparisons, strangely, is electoral participation. I say this is strange because we usually compare ourselves with other democracies, but rarely in terms of democracy's central mechanism.

So let's take a look. {C}{C}{C}

According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the U.S. is ranked 139th in voter turnout out of the roughly 170 democracies in the world. To whatever degree participation is a measure of how well a democracy functions, the United States' is among the worst.

Yet as we approach this midterm election, there is, as always, a lot of talk about this election being a referendum on this or that policy or person, of how it signals fundamental shifts in the thoughts and feelings of the American people. While it is certainly true that these elections carry great consequences for the direction of our nation, they are, at best, suggestive evidence of aggregate trends in opinions.


The graph below presents turnout in midterm elections since 1982, These data were graciously provided by Curtis Gans at the Center for the Study of the American Electorate.



U.S. Midterm Elections Turnout Rate, 1982-2006

The sad fact is that barely 40 percent of people who can vote actually bother to show up for midterms, and this was no better in 2006 than it was in the early 1980s.

One cannot help but cringe at this level of self-disenfranchisement. In a sense, each midterm ballot cast represents a proxy vote for 2.5 people.

The consequences of this representational deficit are vast, and it speaks to many possible causes, not the least of which being a need for more civic education in our K-12 system. For now, keep these simple data in mind the next time you hear someone speak about what this upcoming election means. And when you vote, think about the other person and a half you are representing.

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