Following disturbing allegations of sexual harassment and assault by Donald Trump, and in spite of embarrassing leaked emails among Hillary Clinton’s staffers, Clinton seems to be on her way to victory with some 46% of the popular vote, according to recent national polls, such as Ipsos and Pew. But as I wrote in the current issue of Nature (my first feature story for the magazine!), pollsters disagree about how estimate “likely voters”—people who will actually turnout to vote on Election Day. What no one disputes, however, is that only half of voting-age Americans will vote that day.
Only half, maybe a bit more. That means that Clinton will have actually earned less than a quarter of everyone’s votes, and 76% of Americans will not have voted for the new president. That’s at least 180 million people. Since this typical of US elections, an important question we should ask is, what does it mean for democracy in this country?
Voter turnout in the United States trails other developed countries, as the US ranks 31st out of 35 in the OECD. The poor numbers this year are no anomaly. For example, 73% of voting-age Americans did not vote for Barack Obama in 2012, and if you’re wondering, 76% of them did not vote for George W. Bush in 2000. In mid-term elections, turnout is even lower (only 36% in 2014), and it’s worse than that in the primary elections.
We have two key problems here: people are either unwilling or unable to vote. Let’s start with “unable.” Some six million Americans are disenfranchised because they’re convicted of felonies, but shouldn’t people keep the right to vote after they’ve served their time? In addition, there are plenty of people who can’t take the day off work and can’t make it to the polls before or after work. Other people are subjected to voter suppression, including those potentially removed from voter rolls because they vote infrequently (Ohio) and those excluded because of strict voter ID laws (Wisconsin). The ACLU also identifies similar restrictions on voting rights in 15 other states.
These serious problems do not account for all the people who aren’t voting, as many people are also unwilling to vote. This year, Clinton and Trump have historically low approval ratings, with a majority of voters having unfavourable views of both of them. Although some people will instead vote for Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party), Jill Stein (Green Party), or Evan McMullin (independent), many many more people will not vote at all. Why?
I doubt there’s a simple answer to that question. I think many people aren’t engaged in politics and just don’t care, but many others don’t feel like any of their elected officials actually respond to their concerns or represent their interests. People of color, young people, and people with lower incomes and less education tend to vote much less often, according to the Pew Research Center. The wide chasm between these people and political leaders, who tend to be old, white, male, wealthy, and educated at elite institutions, is glaringly obvious.
Some solutions are relatively simple, but they’ll still be contentious. First, Election Day should be a paid national holiday. Second, people reaching voting age should be automatically registered to vote. An alternative would be to allow people to register at the polls on Election Day, rather than 30 days earlier, which is required in many states.
President Hillary Clinton could take steps toward implement these, and she could advance longer-term reforms as well, especially campaign finance reform. In poll after poll, Americans across the political spectrum overwhelmingly favor overhauling the campaign finance system and overturning the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC court ruling, because of widespread concerns about the influence of money on politics.
We could also finally put an end to the Electoral College, so that people who don’t live in a handful of battleground states won’t feel like their votes are meaningless. We should also take steps to open up the field to more candidates while trying to implement some kind of runoff voting so that people who aren’t voting for a Republican or a Democrat also won’t feel like they’re throwing their votes away.
To people in other countries, which don’t have all of these problems, our system for electing political leaders looks crazy, and the small fraction of Americans who participate in the electoral process seems troubling. But it doesn’t have to be this way.