August 14, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Dems Must Build a Democratic Culture, Too

It's going to take more than registering to get nonvoters to vote.

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I found this map on Twitter recently. It shows what the United States looks like when you blackout counties in which a majority of eligible voters did not cast a vote in 2016.

The map’s creator* (see correction below) hoped to demonstrate what he believes to be the problem with the two-party system. So many people didn’t vote, he said, because the parties failed to produce acceptable candidates. To him, this is concrete evidence of party failure.

“Anyone who wants to earnestly say that the election was ‘stolen by Russia’ needs to explain this map,” wrote @giorgio_montana on July 30. “I’m going to go off on a limb and say you don’t need poorly-made Facebook ads to convince people not to vote for the two least popular politicians in American history.”

I don’t see it that way. I see the map as illustration of Philip Bump’s reporting last week in the Post. Bump wrote about a new and massive Pew study that not only tracked who voted for whom, but verified their votes. In doing so, Pew was able to estimate how many people did not vote in 2016. The result is maddening.

Some 30 percent of eligible voters didn’t vote. That’s a higher percentage than those who voted for either President Trump or Hillary Clinton. Of these voters, half were nonwhite, two-thirds under 50, and more than half earned less than $30,000 a year.

Is the fact of their not voting an indictment of the candidates? You could say that. More likely, their nonvoting is part of an ongoing trend in American politics. Most people who can vote don’t vote, and the outcome is a politics reflecting the preferences of those who do, which is to say, a politics that favors the Republican Party.

As Bump said, nonvoters won it for Donald Trump. “Those who didn’t vote are as responsible for the outcome of the election as those who did,” he wrote.

What would be a solution?

Some would say ranked choice voting*. This is being tried in Maine. But while RCV would determined the winner of a majority of voters, it would not determine real majorities, because  it does not include people standing on the sidelines.

I have championed mandatory voting. I don’t think it’s likely, but if it happened, as President Obama said*: “It would completely change the political map in this country. It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract money more than anything.” Some say it’s un-American to force people to vote. But it’s no more un-American than forcing people to show up for jury duty. Voting is a duty, too.

Liberal advocacy groups aren’t going to push for mandatory voting. (Not yet anyway.) Instead, they’ll do what they have always done: mount massive voter registration drives. But there’s a problem here that liberal advocacy groups won’t tell you, because you might give them money if they did: registration does not correlate with voting.

Paul Glastris, editor in chief of The Washington Monthly, the best politics magazine in the country, has given this a great deal of thought. Last spring, he wrote:

“There are approximately 50 million Americans who are eligible to vote but aren’t registered. But there are far more “episodic voters”—citizens who are registered but often don’t show up. More than 100 million registered voters didn’t cast ballots in the 2014 midterms. About 145 million didn’t vote in the primaries.”

We normally think of two groups worthy of our attention: registered and unregistered voters. But those might be the wrong groups to think about. Maybe we should be thinking about unregistered voters versus what Glastris calls “episodic voters.” These are Americans who are registered but do not reliably vote. Why these groups?

For one, because registration is no guarantee of voting. For another, these groups have different value systems. Unregistered voters, Glastris writes, are unregistered because “they dislike politics and don’t believe voting makes a difference.” “Episodic voters,” however, believe in voting. They just don’t know enough. As Glastris writes: “If you were designing a system to maximize the Democrats’ electoral chances, you’d want it to be primarily focused on educating and mobilizing these episodic voters.”

Glastris rightly points to mechanisms that can be put in place to educate episodic voters. But I think there’s more to it than mechanisms. At the root of this problem is that Americans who don’t vote don’t have a habit of thinking democratically*. In other words, they do not inhabit a culture in which self-determination feels real. There are many reasons for that, I’m sure, but I’m also sure liberals groups and the Democratic Party have good incentive for developing such a culture, ward by ward, block by block, even among people who don’t think voting makes a difference in their lives.

It does make a difference. They just don’t know it. Getting them to know it is more important than getting them to register. Once voting is a habit, it can’t be broken.


I misidentified the map’s creator. It is not @giorgio_montana. It is Philip Kearney, a cartographer. Montana was commenting on Kearney’s map. I regret the error.


*I think mandatory voting is better than ranked-choice voting, but ranked-choice voting is better than the current fad of getting states to sign a legally binding compact in which they’d throw their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. As I argued in the Connecticut Mirror: “The real problem is that our election system currently allows something that shouldn’t happen in a representative democracy. Candidates don’t need majorities to win. Trump won 101 electoral votes in states where he did not win 50 percent of those state’s voters. In Michigan, for instance, Trump won 47.3 percent of the popular vote while three other candidates split the balance. Those three were Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.”

*Obama mentioned mandatory voting in an aside to a different point he was making, but it made headlines nonetheless. Take a moment and you’ll see what I mean.

*For more on the habit of thinking democratically, I highly recommend reading Melvin Rogers’ excellent piece in the Boston Review on the philosopher John Dewey and what his writing on democracy has to say about our present political moment. Dewey’s faith in America, Rogers writes, “was always shaped by an important insight regarding democracy that many seem to have ignored. For Dewey, democracy’s survival depends on a set of habits and dispositions—in short, a culture—to sustain it.”

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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