Paltry voter participation in Tuesday’s primary election speaks volumes about the disconnect between California and its citizens. Only 18.3% of registered voters, according to the secretary of state's office, bothered to participate in the process.
By now we’ve heard the litany of excuses that “prevent” voters from casting ballots. They include being too busy, too confused by the process and not interested because it’s only a primary, with the real results coming in November. All these excuses and others translate into a simple, unenviable fact: About 80% of the potential electorate was not motivated to exercise the franchise.
Yet, in recent years, the voting system has been adjusted to ease the practice of voting. California adopted permanent absentee voting in 1978. The voter registration period has since been extended to 15 days prior to election day. More recently still, we adopted online voter registration. The fact is that anyone with a scintilla of desire can register to vote and participate at election time. Still, participation, especially in the primaries, has gone down steadily. So what’s really wrong?
Californians have lost their way in appreciating the precious link between citizens and their government. A dark political haze seems to separate the will of the people from the policies of elected officials. And why is that? Several factors account for the uncoupling of the relationship.
First, families with two working parents, or single parents, no longer have the time to discuss politics as they did 50 or more years ago. Second, in a time-challenged era of cramming as much as possible to students, schools don’t cover citizenship and its linkage to democracy. Third, with little knowledge about “the system,” citizens have little motivation to explore issues beyond their own lives; most water-cooler discussions focus on a television awards show or sports game or the latest social scandal rather than a debate on a political issue. As a result, we have an uneducated, disinterested citizen population with many who can’t wait for the election to be over and others unaware of it altogether.
Our collective indifference comes at a discouraging cost to self-government. As we sit idly by with little regard for the issues and their resolution through those we might elect, fewer and fewer people participate. That small group becomes mighty important in determining outcomes, with the rest of us passively on the outside and not even looking in. Yet, those nominated to possibly serve are often very different from the rest of us.
But there is an even more significant cost, and that is the threat to our representative democracy. At its core, democracy depends on citizen involvement as the lifeblood of its existence. The more people participate, the more their hopes are transferred to government through their election choices. Conversely, the less people participate, the more the link between citizens and government unravels.
We commonly think of overturned democracies resulting from military coups or foreign invasions, and those sometimes happen. But it’s just as easy to lose democracy from surrendering to apathy, and that is the result of our own doing.
Democracies are often identified as such by their rich assortment of rights and guarantees, which guard the citizens from each other and otherwise intrusive governments. But democracies also include obligations of the citizens to the system through the continuous flow of ideas to those we place in power. We’re all too aware of our rights, yet somewhere along the way we have lost our sense of obligation.
Years ago, when lamenting about a peaceful swamp ravaged by trash and other man-made insults, the humorist/cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Californians have entered our own political swamp, and unless we want to drown in it, we must begin our political repair.
Larry N. Gerston is a professor of political science at San Jose State University. His latest book, “Reviving Citizen Engagement: Policies to Renewing National Community,” will be published in January.