Do Americans live in a democracy or in a scum-ridden, corrupt regime run by elite interests? Skeptics tend to believe the latter. “Start with this reality: the Powers That Be don’t want genuine democracy…They intend for politics to be a spectator event for us, scripted by the one-tenth of 1 percent of elites who put up the controlling money,” write Jim Hightower and Susan DeMarco in their book, Swim Against the Current.
While hyperbolic (as is much of Hightower’s writing), their argument exemplifies how research placing American voter turnout at 55% has been used to disparage American society as inherently undemocratic. After all, if 1.) elite interests control the candidate choice, and 2.) no-one cares about voting any more, then America is inherently undemocratic, right?
Wrong. Actually, the proportion of registered voters who actually vote is more than two-thirds, not the slightly-over-half that we endlessly hear.
As in many cases, the truth about American politics lies in the way voting is measured. If voter turnout is calculated using the voting-age population, American participation seems quite small. However, such numbers would include convicted criminals, the insane, and, perhaps, even illegal immigrants.
It would also include those who have chosen not to register to vote even though they remain free to do so at any time.
“The main reasons for this large difference between electoral participation between the United States and other democracies are institutional, not cultural,” writes UC Berkeley Professor Jack Citrin in Understanding America. These “technical differences” serve to “lower American turnout relative to those in other countries” making America appear to be a democracy with very rampant political apathy.
When only registered voters are included in the sample, a surprising statistic emerges. Citrin writes that “American turnout expressed as a proportion of those registered who vote hovers above 70 percent, a figure comparable to turnout in a number of European democracies.” He believes that placing election day during the work week and providing so many voting opportunities reduces American participation. Still, a 70% turnout rate is no small change.
And what about political participation? “Voting aside, however, Americans are more likely than Europeans to be politically active,” Citrin writes, pointing to studies by the European Social Survey and Georgetown University (emphasis original).
Bethany Stotts is a Staff Writer at Accuracy in Academia.