A VIBRANT DEMOCRACY depends on robust electoral participation. That is not what we have, but it is what we must aspire to. Though some hold up the United States as a beacon of democracy, the country’s electoral participation is relatively feeble: In the 2016 general elections, it was 56 percent of the voting age population. In other words, people who didn’t vote greatly outnumber those who voted for the winning presidential candidate.
In fact, the United States compares poorly with other countries in this regard. In the most recent national election, turnout was 87 percent in Belgium, 79 percent in Australia, and 68 percent in France. Among the 36 developed democracies that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, America ranks 28th in voter turnout.
There was a time when some political scientists thought that low participation was a sign that people were satisfied with how their society was being governed. Whether or not that was ever the case, few would be so sanguine about low engagement today. Many decades of research have firmly established that people who are white, better educated, and have higher incomes tend to vote more often than those who don’t enjoy socioeconomic advantages. Although political inequality has many other sources, such as lobbying and in-group connections, equalizing influence at the ballot box would be an excellent first step in addressing it.
Americans who don’t vote have significantly different views from those who do. Research has shown, for example, that nonvoters are substantially more likely than voters to think that government should guarantee jobs and health insurance and that union organizing should be made easier, and less likely to think that abortion should always be legal. Furthermore, many Americans don’t vote because they think their vote makes no difference, they don’t trust politicians and political parties, and they don’t like the choices that the major parties offer.
Achieving full participation will require mending these broken ties of trust and real representation. It will require that political leaders and parties offer a range of visions of society, economy, and policy such that every American finds something compelling, authentic, and valuable in the political process. Because candidates would be competing for the votes of a much larger and more diverse electorate, full participation would increase political competition and compel the creation of policy proposals and relational strategies that resonate and connect with all Americans, not just half of us.
But how can we get there? Many current priorities—the left is focused on removing barriers to voting, voter suppression, and disenfranchisement, while the right hones in on voter fraud and the security and integrity of our electoral machinery—are important, but achieving them would not bring us even close to full participation. That requires a culture of voting, in which every American feels that it is her or his patriotic duty to participate. I believe that this responsibility extends well beyond individuals. Organizations in America—schools and colleges, clubs, churches, and businesses—should also strengthen the civic bonds that our democracy requires. They can start by encouraging their employees, customers, students, and others they touch to participate in elections.
Last year, for example, we launched an effort—the Harvard Votes Challenge—to get all eligible students at the University to register to vote. Though we didn’t quite achieve full participation, we registered 93 percent of eligible students at the Kennedy School. Many other campuses, including the University of Michigan and Yale University, have embraced similar efforts. So have some corporations and organizations. The United Auto Workers has worked with General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford to make Election Day a corporate holiday to encourage voting and poll work. Patagonia has done the same. Many companies—under the banner of Time to Vote—are exploring ways to encourage their customers and employees to participate in elections.
We do not know where full participation will lead, but it might, as the eminent political scientist E. E. Schattschneider wrote more than 40 years ago, “produce the most painless revolution in history, the first revolution ever legalized and legitimized in advance”—one that overturns the “whole balance of power in the political system”—because that balance depends, right now, not only on who votes but, critically, on who does not. We’re a long way from achieving that vision of democracy, but America is worth it.
Archon Fung is the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government. His research explores policies, practices, and institutional designs that deepen the quality of democratic governance.