Why Don’t They Vote?
The Perpetual Conundrum of U.S. Voter Apathy

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project
| November 4, 2018                                                     


Why Don't They Vote? | The Perpetual Conundrum of U.S. Voter Apathy

“Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.” — Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Oct. 5, 1944
“So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind — it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact — I can only submit to the edict of others.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., March 17, 1957

“...it’s disquieting to note that in all other free nations, the turnout is better than in America. Such apathy doesn’t augur well for our way of life.” — The Globe-Gazette (Mason City, Iowa), Dec. 4, 1958
“The problem...is not the people who voted, [it’s] the people who didn’t vote. I can’t believe the numbers of Americans who don’t take the time to go out and vote.” John Kerry, Sept. 2018 1
“For one of the world’s leading champions of democracy” wrote famed pollster George Gallup in a 1946 report, “the United States has a surprisingly poor record of turnout on election days. The voter turnout in America is lower than in any large democracy which has held an election recently. We rank far behind Australia, France, England, and Canada, and even behind Italy, where the first democratic election after two decades of Fascist control was held last month.”2

Today, the most consequential political faction in the U.S. remains, as usual, the non-voter. The 2016 Presidential race, after all, was determined by only 55.7% of eligible voters3, an abysmally low turnout by global standards, mirroring the 1940’s and 1950’s when the figures were only slightly different.

Political apathy in America has persisted for so long that any discussion of the topic just feels like a rehash. From one generation to the next, it’s essentially the same conversation, with the same questions, the same excuses, the same theories....yet little, if any, change.

By way of demonstration, presented below are three separate newspaper editorials titled “Why Don’t They Vote?”: the first from Aug. 1952, followed by another less than two weeks later, and the third from 1963, 11 years after. Lamenting the unfortunate, befuddling situation, all three took a crack at diagnosing the problem, much like the media does today.

Sprinkled chronologically among these are samples of plain folks pleading with their fellow citizens to do their civic duty and vote in the Nov. 1952 presidential primaries — a familiar refrain to most Americans.

As the Nov. 6th midterm elections nears, it never hurts to have yet another reminder of the importance of political engagement, because you can’t complain if you... (look, even I’m doing it now).

As Gallup concluded in 1946, “The low voter turnout in the United States not only shows lack of public interest in government, but also has far-reaching political repercussions....[the] whole political picture might be changed if they turned out and voted in full strength.”





The Corpus Christi Caller-Times (Corpus Christi, Texas)
July 26, 1946 (lead editorial)

Every Qualified Citizen Should Exercise
His Right To Cast a Vote

On the eve of the primary at which voters will make their selections of office holders from senator to constable there seems to be still some apathy on the part of the electorate.

Even in the governor’s race, where the hottest controversies have developed and most speeches made, you find a large percentage of people still uncertain about their choice. They all seem to know just whom to scratch, since it is easier to decide against than for somebody, but they are leaving the final decision up to the moment they mark their ballot.

Tens of thousands won’t bother to vote at all. They will either be too busy to vote—it takes only a few minutes—or they are “disgusted” with politics and don’t want to have anything to do with it. They say “No matter whether I vote or not; I’ll get gypped anyhow.”

This is a curious and indefensible attitude. With large numbers of people refusing to discharge this prime obligation of citizenship it is small wonder there are so many complaints about incompetent and undesirable officeholders. For every citizen who stays away from the polls from deliberate choice, there are ten others who go to the polls to reward a friend or punish an enemy. The question of merit of the candidate has little to do in making up their minds.

A very large percentage of voters will make the acquaintance of some of the candidates only when they start to mark their ballot. They never heard of them before. That is why a man with a good “political name” sometimes gets elected, without other qualification. People vote their prejudices, a circumstance that the very form of that Texas ballot invites. Instead of making a check mark against the name of the candidate they favor, they must scratch out the name of the one they oppose. This gives them a chance to express their feelings in a purely physical way, but it denies them the opportunity to consider half a dozen candidates in a given race on their merits, and then make a choice among them by putting down an “x” in a square opposite his name. This, however, would deny them the sadistic pleasure of blacking out the other five names.

We Americans should be proud of the fact that we are privileged to elect men of our choice to office. Very few peoples of the world have enjoyed this act of citizenship in recent years. It took a world war to regain it for Germany and Italy and the countries they dominated. The fact that these people appreciate the right to vote is shown by the heavy percentage of eligible persons who go to the polls when opportunity offers. If they had not lost that privilege in the first place, there could not have been a Hitler or a Mussolini.

If Americans have so low an esteem for the rights of citizenship as to stay away from the polls they have only themselves to blame if unworthy and dangerous men get into office. They should make their choice. On the basis that the will of the majority is supreme, and that the bigger the vote the less chance there is for demagogues to attain office, every qualified citizen should go to the polls Saturday.


“The indifference of the American people to their own government is demonstrated by the failure of a good half of the citizens to vote.” Path To Dictatorship, The Reading Eagle (Reading, Pennsylvania), May 8, 1952

The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington)
August 2, 1952 — Letter to the Editor

An Appeal to Vote

Every citizen of the United States, men and women, 21 years of age and older, should register and vote at the primary and at the November election.

Let each public official be elected by a majority of all of the voters. Do not let a President slip into office by default in 1952 as happened in 1948. About 50 per cent of the potential voters of this nation failed to cast a ballot in the 1948 election. Harry S. Truman received 51 per cent of those votes or about 26 per cent of the potential voters.

Remember that this is a republic and if you want to be represented in the congress and other public offices, you must vote at each election.

O. S. MASON.

Box 294, Selah, Wash.


U.S. Editorial
August 21, 1952

Why Don’t They Vote?

Why don’t Americans vote? President Truman calls attention to the fact that in 1948 only 51 per cent of those eligible went to the polls, as against 75 per cent in Canada and France, 89 per cent in Italy and 90 per cent in Belgium. The situation is getting worse. In 1900, the second McKinley-Bryan contest, 73 per cent of the electors voted, and in 1880, when Garfield beat Hancock, 78 per cent. At this rate in another 20 years only one out of every three Americans will trouble to cast a ballot.

Various reasons might be alleged. The adoption of woman suffrage made eligible a new class of voters who had not been accustomed to the use of the ballot. After 30 years, however, this consideration must be less important. The automobile, the radio, and television have complicated life, leaving less time for such duties of citizenship as following public affairs and voting intelligently.

Another cause may be the decline of partisanship. In the last century party was a holy cause to most persons, making it a sacred duty to vote. Now citizens have have trained themselves to see good and evil in both sides, and too many may conclude that it makes little difference who wins.

Regardless of cause, the growing failure to vote is alarming.


The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
September 2, 1952 — Letter to the Editor

A Citizen’s Duty

Editor, the Post-Gazette:

Human freedom is at its lowest ebb in countries where the secret ballot is unknown. Human slavery is at its lowest ebb in freedom-loving countries. Politics are the concern of all citizens in a democracy, and they should not neglect their civic duties with impunity.

To preserve liberty and self-government—good government—citizens of this glorious republic must exercise eternal vigilance and constant watchfulness.

Proud indeed is the real American who marches forth on election day, into the voting booth and marks his preference for the candidate he believes will best serve his interests. Now is the time for you loyal citizens to prepare to exercise your right and civic duty on November 4, and vote as your conscience dictates—and urge your neighbor to go and do likewise.

M. J. MOLANS

Pittsburgh.


The Newport Daily News (Newport, Rhode Island)
October 21, 1952

Why Don’t They Vote?

It is expected that only about 56 per cent of those Americans who could vote will cast their ballots two weeks hence. And this despite the fact that this is the most exciting Presidential campaign we have had in many years.

Why are so many Americans not interested in voting? Other democracies put us to shame in this matter. In both Canada and France about 70 per cent of those who could vote go to the polls. Sweden and Great Britain do even better. There the turnout is almost always 80 per cent. And in Italy, in the last national election, 92 per cent of the potential vote was cast.

We Americans like to believe we are tops in democratic procedures. Yet we are shamefully behind all other democratic countries when it comes to voting. Why this should be so is a great puzzle to everyone.


The Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan)
October 25, 1953

Everyone Yawns As Election Nears

James Ransom



U.S. Editorial
July 1, 1963

‘Why Don’t They Vote?’

Why did more than a third of eligible Americans fail to register and vote in the 1960 presidential election? And how can they be moved to vote in 1964? The President’s Commission on Registration and Voting Participation is trying to find the answers to such questions.

Rep. William E. Miller, the Republican National Chairman, invited to testify, raised some questions of his own he said the commission could study with profit to the Country.

There is California, where a million persons who registered did not vote; two states in which only 14 per cent of the eligible voters cast; ballots in the 1962 congressional elections; the gap between registration and voting participation and the drop-off, wherein voters cast ballots for a major office but not for lesser ones—in 1962, 246,000 persons who voted for governor in New York did not vote for congressmen.

Miller pointed to single party domination in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina to account for voter apathy in these states. He urged the removal of obstacles to the development of the two-party system in these states.

Most of what ails the American political system can be cured by education and, even more, by candidates who will command public interest and support. The voters will not bestir themselves for political hacks. The cure is in the hands of the major parties, though the voters cannot be excused for their apathy.


Notes:

1 WYNC Radio Interview with former Sec. of State John Kerry (The Brian Lehrer Show, Sept. 6, 2018) [link]

2 THE GALLUP POLL: Voter Turnout in America Lower Than in Other Large Democracies by George Gallup, Director, American Institute of Public Opinion, July 26, 1946

“In the United States...only just a little more than half of the adult citizens (55 per cent) took the trouble to vote in the 1944 presidential election. Worse still is the record of the 1942 Congressional elections. Those elections, held less than a year after Pearl Harbor, determined the membership of a House of Representatives faced with probably the most pressing problems in all our history. Yet only one-third of the country’s adult citizen voters went to the polls.”

3 Pew Research Center: U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout by Drew Desilver, May 21, 2018 [link]


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Related links:

Why Do We Call It Electoral ‘College’? (Aug. 1952 editorial)

An Object Lesson For All Americans | The Spokesman-Review, June 20, 1952

Will History Repeat? | The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Sept. 1952 letter)



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