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October 26, 2012

Nonvoters are trying to tell us something

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

In national election after national election, eligible voters who choose to refrain from voting make up what some political scientists have called a "silent plurality." There have been moments when that plurality was pretty close to becoming a majority. In 1996, 49.1 percent of the voting age population declined to go to the polls. In 2008, turnout of eligible voters went all the way up to 61.7 percent — the highest since 1968, mind you. But the number of those who refused to vote — or just didn't care — was still significantly larger than those who voted for Barack Obama, the winning candidate. Non-voters, in short, make up the biggest electoral bloc in the nation.

You'd think this would be the occasion for some soul-searching. After all, how can you claim to have a democracy when your leaders are elected with a mandate from 30-odd percent of the country's eligible voters? It's estimated that some 90 million Americans will abstain from voting next month. You'd think that this would prompt us to ask some fundamental questions about the viability of a system that's supposedly based on popular participation but actually prompts rejection on a mass scale. (Participation is even lower for midterm congressional elections — only 39 percent of the voting age population showed up in 2010, for example — and lower still for elections on the state and city levels.)

Most of the articles on this subject lately view it through the predictable lens of how these abstainers would affect the election if they actually chose to vote. (The consensus seems to be that most of them lean Democratic, presumably because non-voters do tend to be poorer and less well-educated and thus more inclined to vote for liberal policies.) But perhaps reporters are asking the wrong questions.

Withholding one's vote in a presidential election is, in fact, an entirely rational response to the existing political order in the United States. The electoral college is a big part of the problem, of course. If you live in persistently Republican Texas, you have very good reasons to doubt that your vote for Obama will really influence the outcome. If you live in solidly liberal Massachusetts, casting a vote for Mitt Romney as president is likely to have little effect. (And don't get me started on voting in Washington, D.C.)

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