Friday, July 11, 2014

Sorry voting neglect endangers real democracy

    Trying to win elections by trading indi-vidual votes for money or access seems as old as democracy. Americans today are fond of complaining about the unimagin-able amounts of money and 24-hour media coverage that have combined to over-whelm majority rule, but there’s some-thing even more insidious afoot.
    In the famous “spendthrift election,” held in 1768 in Northamptonshire, Eng-land, three earls spent more than ₤100,000 (about $171,000 in today’s dollars) each to win a seat in government—a shocking amount.
    Fast forward to modern times. The Washington Post reports, “Election-fraud cases more often involve citizens who sell their votes, usually remarkably cheaply. In West Virginia over the past decade, the cost was as low as $10. Last year in West Memphis, Arkansas, a statehouse candi-date used $2 half pints of vodka.”
    Last month in Mississippi’s senatorial primary, tea party candidate Chris McDaniel accused six-term U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran of winning by buying votes.
    Buying votes one by one, however, is crude, crass and ineffective. Buying non-votes works much better. It works this way: If most voters can be convinced that submitting their ballot is not worth their time, even when all they have to do to vote by mail is mark it and put a stamp on it, then each vote actually cast has a far more significant impact on the final result.    In short, if the campaign process turns off most voters, small bases win. Beliefs so extreme they represent only a sliver of the actual majority of Americans come to con-trol decisions that affect everything from local parking regulations to the U.S. Su-preme Court.
    This tactic is most effective in primary elections. In San Diego, Calif., the eighth largest city in the country, the most recent primary saw $1.25 million spent, a million of it on an ugly, negative campaign. The result was that only 8 percent of voters under 35 and 20 percent overall even both-ered to vote. The million-dollar candidate, who represented the smaller base of voters and used the most negative tactics, won.
    The result raises two questions Ameri-cans must ask and answer soon, lest we risk destroying the nation.
    How much is democracy worth preserv-ing if we are so unwilling to do even a lit-tle? Are elections really a rigged game when our own sorry voting habits have become a tactic in that rigging?
    The next time you are tempted to com-plain about the actions of elected officials or negative campaigns, or the amount of money in politics, check whether you bothered to vote in whatever the most re-cent election was. You may have sold your vote too cheaply to the very people you are complaining about.

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