Threats to Democracy: Low Voter Participation

Autocratic forces within a democratic society thrive off of lower voter turnout. The less participatory a democracy is, the more prone it is to slip into autocracy. The autocrats do not simply hope for low voter participation, rather they do everything in their power to orchestrate it through laws and processes that are created to suppress voter turnout.

The barrage of voter suppression legislation that has been passed in numerous states ever since 2013 when the Supreme Court removed the federal pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act is not the first time that anti-democratic forces have created laws and processes to suppress the vote for the maintenance of the power in the United States. Following the Civil War, African American citizens were being elected to numerous offices throughout the South – a success that white supremacists would not let stand, so they openly refused to seat a number of duly elected African American politicians and created nearly insurmountable barriers to keep African Americans from voting. It was not until the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 that African Americans gained relatively unfettered access to the polls – an access that has been under threat ever since the 2013 aforementioned decision by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Direct barriers to voting are not the only way anti-democratic forces work to suppress the vote to maintain power. Partisan gerrymandering has been an effective anti-democratic tool for creating as many districts to be immune from real political competition as is possible. Many districts are so uncompetitive that it is difficult to recruit candidates to oppose the incumbent, thus creating a sense of inevitability that the incumbent will remain in power and a sense of hopelessness for voters that anything can change. In states such as my state of Oklahoma, the number of incumbents in the state legislature who run unopposed or who only face a primary opponent is staggering. The obvious result is low voter participation.

With consistent low voter turnout over time, citizens lose an awareness of what a difference they could make if everyone who is eligible would vote and they give into the hopelessness that nothing can change. This is precisely the desired outcome for autocrats who then can gain and maintain power while creating a reality of minority rule.

Perhaps reforms such ranked choice instant runoff voting, a move to proportional representation, and independent redistricting could help contribute to higher voter participation, but such reforms require people to vote for them. We can be hopeful that the recent vote in Kansas to protect reproductive choice can serve as a wake up call for voters to see how much power they still have if they will simply come out to the polls and vote.

The vote in Kansas is a powerful reminder of what can happen when masses of people come to the polls and vote for their interests. The autocratic right is terrified that people will turn out and vote in November like they did a few days ago in Kansas. For the sake of democracy, may their worst fears be realized.

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