ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Other View: High voter turnout is a symptom of polarization, not a cure

OPED-VOTER-TURNOUT-EDITORIAL-GET
A woman fills out her ballot at a fire station turned polling place on May 17, 2022, in Cary, North Carolina.
Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images/TNS
We are part of The Trust Project.

Conventional wisdom holds that America’s democratic norms are withering. It also asserts that high voter turnout signifies a healthy democracy. So does a record high voter turnout for this May’s midterm primary election mean American democracy is in better shape than it seems?

Probably not. High turnout does not always express hope, and low turnout does not always express despair. Turnout runs high when many usually marginal voters decide to vote.

Also Read
Not long after Donald Trump’s 2016 election, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp traveled to Hungary, where its authoritarian leader, Viktor Orbán, had implemented many of the populist-right policies that had energized the American president’s most ardent supporters. Notably, Orbán militarized Hungary’s southern border to stop the “invasion” of migrants — and he has made base racial appeals.
Far too many children in Minnesota and across the nation are struggling to stay mentally afloat.

When people stampede to the polls, it’s not usually because they’re satisfied with the political system and love performing their democratic duty. It’s more likely because they’re frustrated with politics, or angry at specific politicians or “the system” in general. They usually fear what will happen if their opponents win.

History bears this out.

For instance, turnout hit a historic low in 1996, dropping below 50%. While some commentators wrung their hands about the apathy of the American people, during the generally prosperous and stable 90s, that apathy was at least as likely an expression of contentment as it was of cynicism. Ambivalence about who will be president may reflect a frustrating detachment from the duties of self-government — but also a trust that the country’s political system will be fine, regardless of who’s in charge.

ADVERTISEMENT

The second-highest presidential turnout in history — about 81% of eligible voters — came in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln ascended to the office. (It had already risen to 79% in the previous election, when the issues were reaching a critical state.)

Aside from democratic enthusiasm, this turnout expressed a justifiable fear that the very future of the country depended on the results of the election. For Lincoln voters, a country run by the Democrats wasn’t worth living in, and supporters of John C. Breckenridge and Stephen A. Douglas generally felt the same about Lincoln. As we know, they ended up acting on that feeling.

The highest voter turnout? That was nearly 82% in 1876, when the question of the future of Reconstruction was on the ballot. The contested election resulted in a notorious compromise: The Republicans got their man, Rutherford B. Hayes, in the presidency, at the cost of removing federal troops from the former Confederacy.

When marginal voters start to flock to the polls, it’s not because they love the chance to participate in molding the country. It’s because they think things are going so poorly, and that the other side is so dangerous, that they must vote.

In other words, high turnout may be a symptom of a polarized nation, not a cure. And very high turnout may be a sign of a nation on the edge.

The 2020 election brought the highest presidential turnout since 1960 and, before that, 1908. If the midterm trend continues, 2024 will probably be higher still. It’s more like the 1850s than the 1990s.

On the bright side, high turnout does show that, despite all the complaints about “election integrity,” people — however angry or frightened they are — still see elections as the most legitimate way to seek political power. For now.

©2022 PG Publishing Co.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

What to read next
The next test is how vigorously the NFL pursues its appeal to deter future player malfeasance and demonstrate the league has finally evolved.
How angry are some Republicans at what they see as betrayal by a centrist Democrat? Angry enough to betray sick military veterans, apparently. That’s the only rational explanation for last week’s sudden about-face by two dozen Senate Republicans, including Missouri’s Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley, who opposed legislation they previously supported to make it easier for cancer-stricken veterans to get help from the government.
On Sept. 11, about 65,000 fans will pack U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis to watch the 123rd battle between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers.
They reminded America that it could do better.