Behind the low voter turnout
Published Nov 11, 2010 9:05 PM
“I voted for Obama because I felt his message and wanted to be a part of
a change in America. This year it’s different. All the confusion with the
Tea Party, all the negativity against the president and the Republicans who
want to take back their country, all my hope is gone,” said Brian
Henderson, a 22-year-old Washington, D.C., resident. “But I’m still
going to vote and encourage others to do so also. It’s hard to get
excited when you don’t feel like the options are any better than the
devil and Satan in some places.” (finalcall.com, Nov. 1)
This was the opinion expressed by many young Black people shortly before the
recent elections, which saw the defeat of many Democratic politicians across
the country. Black youth, responding to a national survey of 15- to
25-year-olds, revealed that they were realistic about the meaning of the new
age of hope President Barack Obama had promised in 2008.
“This group of young people, although exuberant over the first
African-American president, realize that they cannot count on him or any other
politician to singly change their condition,” said Cathy Cohen,
University of Chicago professor of political science and lead researcher of the
Black Youth Project study.
In their conversations, Black youth repeatedly pointed to the need for
community action — also part of Obama’s campaign message — as
the vehicle for change.
Although there has been no detailed analysis of the 2010 midterm elections yet,
exit polls conducted by various news organizations point to a low turnout by
youth, as well as Black and Latino/a voters. A CBS News poll conducted the day
of the election reported that African Americans were only 10 percent of the
voters, down from 13 percent in 2010. Youth 18 to 29 years old made up
only 9 percent of voters in 2010, down from 19 percent in 2008.
Most of these polls are vague at best and may very well be misleading. For
example, they do not specify whether the percentages cited are registered
voters, people qualified to vote (excluding prisoners, immigrants and many
others), or just totals of people within certain age groups.
Nevertheless, it is almost certain that the apparent victories of Republican
and other right-wing candidates were due to low voter turnout and
demoralization on the part of progressives and working-class voters rather than
to their endorsement of conservative policies and candidates.
Perhaps the most telling statistic is that only 41.1 percent of all the
eligible people in the U.S. voted. This would be astonishing, were it not for
the fact that it is ordinary: Voter turnout in the past six midterm elections
has ranged between 38 percent and 42 percent. Considering that almost no
candidate won by more than 55 percent in the recent elections, the so-called
“repudiation” of Obama being trumpeted by the mainstream media
represents a “mandate” of only 24 percent of the U.S.
Why don’t people vote?
Dissatisfaction with elected officials is at an all-time high in the United
States. Polls have found that only 11 percent of people in the U.S. have faith
in Congress; 45 percent favor replacing them by picking names out of the phone
book! (Rasmussen Reports, January 2010) The Tea Party and other groups on the
extreme right have tried to channel these feelings into a rightward, even
fascist direction. But the truth about nonvoting lies elsewhere.
It has become popular in the mainstream media to associate low voter turnout
with “voter apathy.” This implies that people who don’t vote
really don’t care about politics or about who is elected to office. This
patronizing view is behind the exhortation made by bourgeois pundits before
every election: “If you don’t vote, you can’t
In a recent article in Psychology Today, Guy Winch attributes poor voter
turnout and other examples of so-called political apathy to a phenomenon called
learned helplessness. “Learned helplessness,” according to Winch,
“is a psychological state that describes what happens when people believe
they have no control over their environment. When we become convinced our
actions will not have the impact we desire, we cease our efforts and become
passive and helpless.” People complain, but they don’t do anything
about it because they are convinced it won’t do any good. (Oct. 26)
The masses of people are not stupid or ignorant, as many would like to make
them out to be. Beaten down by exploitation and oppression, they have learned
through bitter experience that it seldom makes any difference to their daily
lives who is in office. Third party candidates who might offer a real choice
are systematically prevented from gaining ballot status, or from publicizing
As the fightback develops against capitalist misery, people will be voting with
their feet, their lungs and their solidarity.
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