Easier access to the voting booth, Voter ID and race-based voter discrimination are all very important issues. It’s highly unlikely, however, that you’ll hear incumbent politicians discussing root causes of the voter apathy sweeping the nation.
These days voter turnout is at an all-time low, according to the United States Elections Project. In primary elections, for example, the national average is down to just 15.9 percent of registered voters. In general elections, the national average is just 36 percent. Put those percentages in terms of eligible voters (those who could register to vote if they wanted to) and the state of our participatory democracy becomes even more concerning.
California hasn’t been im mune from the national trend. In 2014, we had record low primary and general election turnout numbers—just 25 percent and 42 percent of registered voters, respectively.
On its surface, the fact that California’s primary election turnout is 157 percent higher than the national average, and that our general election turnout is 12 percent higher, should be a point of pride.
But when we look inside the Golden State, these record low turnout numbers are a terrible testament to the state of our democracy.
In this country, we have a constitutional democracy—a system of government that represents all eligible voters through the election of representatives. When our found ers wrote the Constitution, they never mentioned political parties.
In Federalist Paper 68, for example, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the Electoral College should depend on, “[a] small number of persons, selected by their fellowcitizens from the general mass,” so that the election of the President not be made “to depend on any preexisting bodies of men, who might be tampered with beforehand to prostitute their votes; but they have referred it in the first instance to an immediate act of the people of America, to be exerted in the choice of persons for the temporary and sole purpose of making the appointment.”
George Washington even spent a good portion of his farewell speech on the issue of political parties. “However combinations or associations of [organized factions] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion,” he warned.
But what do we have today? California, a blue state, will send electors to the Electoral College who have a personal and legal loyalty to the Democratic Party and ask them to vote for the next President. Texas, a red state, will do the same thing, but for a different team.
This is because we have a partisan-based election system.
And so we allow a private Commission on Presidential Debates, composed of major party members, to determine the presidential debate rules. We allow our tax dollars all over the country to fund partisan primary elections that serve the private benefit of the major political parties. And as a result, we have political maps that are painted red and blue as if one of the two private political parties is entitled to ownership of the district.
When you presuppose that every election is a battle between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party—and this “two-party system” is the best way to protect democracy—our system is working. The two major parties, after all, still hold almost every single statewide and federal elected seat in this country. At the end of the day, every policy decision is in their hands.
But if you think that our representatives should be accountable to all voters then we should consider the partisan composition of the public. Independent voters are the fastest growing section of the electorate. In fact, by self-identification, independent voters outnumber Republicans and Democrats by a wide margin. In San Diego, by registration, more voters are now registered as “no party preference” than are registered Republican.
And the number of independent voters in California is actually growing slower that in other states across the country. In Colorado, for example, 67 percent of new voters are registering as “unaffiliated.” And in New Jersey, 47 percent of current registered voters refuse to join a party. Notably, both of these states hold “closed” primaries, so you can’t even vote unless you join a party.
So, shouldn’t the fact that voters are taking the time to register to vote, but would rather skip a primary than join a party, tell us something about the state of our two-party system?