I recently voted by mail in Switzerland and the United States. Historically, less than half of registered Swiss voters actually vote, although the number was higher this time. In the United States, the percentage is slightly higher depending on whether the vote is for the president, vice-president and members of Congress or only for members of Congress in mid-term elections. In both Switzerland and the United States, supposed beacons of democracy, the percentage of eligible voters actually voting should be higher. Beyond the obvious analyses of the Swiss results on September 27 or the U.S results on November 4, there remains the question of why more people don’t vote.
While I am confident that my vote in Switzerland was accurately counted – I have heard of no conscious attempts at fraud – voting is complicated as the U.S. election will show. A Swiss/American friend said of the U.S. vote in 2016: “There will be no election.” He was sure the election would be cancelled. After the election, he amended that to say: “It doesn’t make any difference who wins. They’re all the same.”
Does voting make a difference? If voting is the backbone of democracy, the percentage of voters should be well over 50%. Getting the right to vote is prized by many. Others see little relation between their daily lives and voting. For all those who fought in courts or stand in line for hours to vote, there are an equal number of citizens who do not exercise their legal right.
What is the relation between voting and democracy? Democracy has two elements. The first, and most obvious, is the holding of elections. But, as we are seeing in Belarus, and potentially in the United States, the holding of elections is a necessary but not sufficient part of democratic rule. Behind the holding of elections is a democratic culture, the rule of law and the separation of government powers.
The deeper element of democracy includes all the parts of a democratic culture, including a feeling that the result of the voting has a direct influence on our daily lives. For my friend, there was little if no difference between a Republican or Democrat in the White House. To him, both parties were ruled by oligarchs who pull the strings behind the scenes.
And, I imagine, for the large percentage of people who do not vote, there is little relationship between voting, the issues decided and their daily lives. If the issues to be decided were deemed crucial, I assume that more people would vote.
Why is there such a separation between the act of voting and the perception of the daily life? I voted in both countries with strong feelings. I saw a direct cause and effect between my vote and how I live and want to live. But what about the others? What about those who didn’t vote? (This is not part of a campaign for getting out the vote.)
I am curious about people who don’t vote. My friend was political; he had very strong views about the world but didn’t see any relation between voting and change. On the other hand, I assume that people who don’t vote may see no relation between voting and what happens to them. They are, in a sense, apolitical.
It’s not as if celebrities in the United States have not tried to get people to vote. Michelle Obama wore a "vote" necklace during her speech to the 2020 Democratic National Convention in August, a reminder to those who followed the convention and her speech. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $100 million to help Democrats register people to vote in Florida. NBA basketball star LeBron James has a multimillion dollar organization to help register people to vote in Black areas, recruit poll workers and pay fines for felons to be eligible to vote.
But why should all of this be necessary? We know that in the United States Republicans are making every effort to keep people away from voting since a larger turnout is advantageous to Democrats. But even so, the number of people voting in the United States and Switzerland is generally below 50% of those eligible.
When I am asked if I am a Democrat, I respond that I am a democrat first, and then a Democrat. As a democrat, I am more than worried about the roughly 50% of eligible voters who do not vote in the United States and Switzerland. That is a true democratic deficiency.