Does Voter Apathy Exacerbate Political Polarization?

In the wake of this past Tuesday’s primary elections here in California and several other states, my attention was drawn* to a Los Angeles Times report on voter apathy. “No offense, but I never vote,” a man, age 63, told the reporter. Asked why, the man responded, “I don’t believe in the system.”

As someone who spent two years in the Soviet Union, where only a single unopposed candidate was allowed to stand for each “elected” office, I emphatically disagree with that non-voter, who clearly fails to grasp the value of his right to participate in free elections – something many Russians I knew in the USSR would have given their eye teeth to enjoy.

I would be the last to argue that the American electoral system cannot be improved. Just look at the two – in my view – seriously flawed major-party candidates for president in 2016. (I voted for “none of the above.”) There are several key factors that led both Republicans and Democrats to choose such regrettable nominees – including the sorry state of education in history and “civics,” and media (print, broadcast and social) that too heavily focuses on celebrities, too widely neglects serious examination of issues, and too commonly fails to provide context beyond yesterday’s news in its reporting and what passes for analysis.

Even more directly responsible for the low quality of many nominees for office is the tendency in both major parties to ignore moderate voters in favor of their increasingly polarized left and right wings. Thus we see centrists being displaced by – among Democrats – fans of figures like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and – among Republicans – by Tea Partiers, Trumpistas and single-issue (e.g., anti-abortion) politicians. (By now, I’ve probably alienated a great many ultra-liberal or ultra-conservative and populist readers, but that’s preferable to remaining silent in the face of this still-growing disaster.)

The Problem With Voter Apathy
In my view, voter apathy has also helped lead to the major parties’ shift toward their more extreme wings. Few may realize this, but voter apathy can make it possible for relatively small but highly committed groups to determine the outcome of elections.

Following is an analysis of how this comes about from an excerpt of an article I edited that was written a few years ago by a client, Dr. Richard Kelley, chairman emeritus of Hawaii-headquartered Outrigger Hotels & Resorts. (Presented here with the author’s permission.)

While the following example uses imprecise numbers, the principle is sound and it illustrates how a tiny group of voters can actually determine who is elected to office.

Say you are in a room with 100 voting-age citizens and you begin by asking everyone to stand.

  • Since roughly a third of Hawaii’s** citizens do not even bother to register, you then ask every third person in the room to sit down, leaving 67 standing, representing the registered voters.
  • Since 60 percent of those registered nonetheless failed to vote in Hawaii’s last primary election, you ask 60 percent of those still standing – 40 people – to sit down, leaving just 27 potential voters standing.
  • Since important races are often won by someone who gets only slightly over 50 percent of the vote, you ask just under half of those still standing, 13, to sit down. They represent those who voted for the losing candidate.
  • The remaining 14 people standing represent those who elected the winning candidate.

Looked at another way, this means that just one out of every seven eligible voters picks the winners in our elections! Of course, the winner will soon be making decisions that affect every one of the 100 potential voters in the room plus perhaps another 30 or 40 people who are ineligible to vote because they are under age 18, are not U.S. citizens, or are not eligible for other reasons, such as being military personnel who vote by absentee ballot in their home states.

Special-interest groups understand this math very well and know that by marshaling a relatively small group of committed, like-minded voters, they can get people elected who are sympathetic to their cause. Once elected, legislators, who can also do the math, will vote for the issues important to the special interest groups that helped elect them – so they can be re-elected the next time.

The only way around having special-interest groups control elections is to have a large voter turnout.

Replace the term “special-interest groups” with “far-right” or “far-left partisans” (among Republicans and Democrats, respectively) and you can see a major cause of America’s poisonous political polarization.

If you’d like to bring a little more peace to the conversation around the dining room table this Thanksgiving, be sure to register and vote in the national elections this November. Perhaps it will help send a few more moderates in both parties to Congress.


* I spotted the report in the California Sun (“all of the must-read news about the Golden State in one place”), which issues a “tightly crafted email with only the most informative and delightful bits” of news from “more than 80 news and social media sites” every day. It’s a fabulous source of news of interest to every Californian, and it’s free. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

** Hawaii has one of the nation’s lowest percentages of voters, so the numbers here are somewhat more alarming than they would be if nationwide percentages were used. Such nationwide averages, however, come with too much explanatory fine print, so I’m sticking with the Hawaii example in the hope that it will motivate more people to get out and vote.

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