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Why Aren't Americans Making the Most of Their Democracy?

“How many of you believe in Congress?”

One day in my public speaking class, a student began his speech with this question, and nobody raised their hands to show their approval. Later in his speech, the student talked more about how Americans view their government, saying that the American government is losing credibility, people are dissatisfied with the present situation and, most importantly for him, lots of people he knows don't vote.

I got almost horrified that day. That student dared to speak against the government in front of the whole class, and the other students and the teacher treated it so calmly that they even didn’t show a surprised look!

According to what I know, this would be totally unacceptable in lots of Asian countries, including my own. As a foreigner, I have to say, I am quite amazed and excited about this American freedom.

Has low voter turnout changed history?

Americans are extremely proud of their democratic system, which is guaranteed by citizens’ voting rights. Yet my experience also tells me that sometimes the American democracy is not what it appears to be, and there are some problems that go along with this kind of freedom. Having just seen one Election Day, and watching the preparations for the 2012 presidential election, I agree with the student in my public speaking class that lack of participation in voting is one of these problems.

In the last presidential election, only about 62% of eligible Americans voted. Turnout among young people was even worse, although activist groups were excited that it was one of the highest youth turnouts in 30 years.

[Read more perspectives on U.S. elections and political participation]

In fact, higher political participation could have changed the course of history. The total population eligible to vote in 2008 was over 210 million; while the 2008 election result published by the Federal Election Commission shows that there were less than 132 million votes cast in that election. We can see clearly that at least 78 million people did not vote. Yet the gap between Obama’s votes and McCain’s is only 9.5 million votes; less than one eighth of the total number of the people who did not vote! What if those people did participate in this election? Would the outcome have changed?

In 2004, only about 3 million votes separated John Kerry from winner George W. Bush. Voter turnout that year was only 60%.

Of course, it's not quite as simple as that, since the winner of the presidential election is based on who gets the most electoral votes rather than the most popular votes, but you see the point.

Unusual factors affecting whether people vote

In non-presidential elections, the turnout is even worse. Where I go to school, in North Dakota, the ballot rate has recently been 64-65% in presidential election years and goes down to below 50% in midterm elections.

The other day I asked about this phenomenon in an interview with Dr. Thomas Ambrosio, an associate professor in the political science department and director of International Studies at North Dakota State University. Dr. Ambrosio told me that this sort of fluctuation between presidential and midterm elections is typical.

“It is normal to see the drop in between 2008 and 2010, and it will go back up in 2012,” he said.

Yet in retrospect, I don’t understand why this should be seen as normal. Why is it taken for granted that there is less participation in midterm elections? These elections will decide the members in the United States Congress. Why is it treated as less important than presidential elections?

I also learned from a local American friend that other factors play into how many voters turn out for an election. For example, North Dakota does not play a very important role in a nationwide election because of its small population (it's the third least populous state in the U.S.). And one of my textbooks tells me that the population of North Dakota contains many descendants of Germans from Russia, a group that apparently tends not to be very politically active in government.

Dr. Ambrosio added one more factor that can influence voter turnout.

“It also depends on how competitive the election is and how obvious which side is going to win,” he said.

Why should voters be influenced by the situation of the election? Voters should be impartial and listen to their own voices, shouldn’t they? Everything is possible, isn’t it? People shouldn’t stand by just because they think the final result is obvious, or that their state doesn’t have an impact, but should go vote and try to make a change.

Wasting the right to political participation

It’s not just in voting where the lack of political participation can be surprising. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which started this September, is based on surging income inequality, especially the idea that wealth is concentrated among only 1% of the population. But research from 2009 already showed that “the top 1 percent incomes captured half of the overall economic growth over the period 1993-2007.” So why did people wait until 2011, after this problem was solidified, to express discontent? Shouldn’t they have protested earlier and solved this issue in an easier way when it was still in its infancy?

I remember that day with Dr. Ambrosio he ended our conversation by trying to explain the reason why people make their own choices about whether or not to participate in the political process. He quoted from Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Americans are proud of their democratic system, yet they may ignore the fact that democracy to some extent also means people may do whatever they want to do without regards to whether they are exercising proper judgment, wasting of their rights to express themselves.

Voting is starting soon in the primaries for the 2012 presidential election. If you are an American citizen above 18 years old, are you ready to vote? As an international student, do you have any other idea about the voting situation in this country? Or, how is voting in your home country? Share this passage and your ideas to show your concern and to appeal to people around you to vote in the near future :)