Twenty fourteen marks yet another year where we Democrats are wringing our hands over whether enough of our supporters will turn out to vote this November. According to FairVote.org, voter turnout is about 60% in presidential elections, but plummets to about 40% in midterm elections. Why is it that every off-year election sees a precipitous drop off in voter participation when compared with presidential years? It seems that in midterm elections, the Democratic Party’s most reliable voters – young people, single women, people of color, low-income people – largely stay at home. Midterm electorates tend to be older, whiter and more affluent. It’s a conundrum, one that adversely affects our success as a party and our ability govern effectively when a Democrat is in the White House (see 2010). Already, Beltway prognosticators are predicting that the Republicans will keep their hold on the House of Representatives and have a better than average shot at retaking the Senate.
So what explains the midterm slump? Theories abound. Some say it’s apathy. Others blame misinformation. Still others blame anger at both Democrats and Republicans. Some point to the fact that many people feel their votes don’t count. The relative difficulty of voting in the United States when compared with other democracies is another reason cited. All of these explanations have some validity. However, here’s one reason I’d like to see get more attention. Since presidential races are given the highest profile in our electoral system, most voters are going to pay the most attention to them and make picking the President their highest priority. Congressional, state and local races are secondary, even though Congress is a co-equal branch to the Presidency, and local issues directly affect people the most. Ask Americans who the President is, and 99% of them will say Barack Obama. But ask them the names of their congressperson, U.S. Senators, state representatives, county supervisor and city council people – many may greet you with blank stares. When people complain about the problems in America and want a politician to blame, it’s usually the President. The people who tend to know the names of all of their representatives are those who are the most politically active in their communities. They are also more likely to be homeowners, less likely to have moved frequently, and they have established roots in their communities. And these people tend to be, yes – older, whiter and more affluent.
I believe the lack of understanding about how our government functions, the less value many voters place on congressional, state and local elections, and the indifferent attitude our society has toward the act of voting, all play a role in depressing turnout in midterm elections. This is the result of a massive failure of civics education in America. This is why Democrats must work doubly hard to ensure other Democrats know what’s at stake and that they get out to the polls in November.