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Do You Care If You're Free?: The Cost of Voter Apathy

Updated on November 5, 2012

Introduction: Where is everyone?

In August of 2012, I had one last errand to run before coming home: voting in the Michigan Primary Election. I wasn’t about to let that golden opportunity pass, so I asked my boss at work for me to leave early so I wouldn’t be late. Picking up my fiance, I also was scared of standing in a massive line and the possibility of a confusing shuffle. I was even optimistic to see many people filed in line to make their voice be heard. Being still in my 20’s, a lot of people my age are incredibly idealistic and outspoken when it comes to social changes or politics. It would have brought pride in my generation to see a crowd of people my age or younger. Still being nervous and hopeful, I expected an informed throng from my conservative, and tightly-knit community. Much to my chagrin, the place was almost empty not counting the poll workers, and we were the youngest people there by 20 years.

The next day, I just heard excuses. Some people I knew that didn’t vote shrugged off that election saying that it wasn’t “that important”. Others embarrassed my inner American (not to mention themselves) saying “Oh, that was yesterday?”. Good grief- watch TV! But what made the gears in my head spin the most were people telling me that voting isn’t something they take part of because “It doesn’t matter” or “both political parties are terrible”. This clique of Americans is heard often during election season and become an embodiment voice of the cynical and subversive. Perhaps, I could understand the cynicism; as many people grow more politically frustrated with our imperfect system with each passing generation. Regardless of this, why all the distaste for democracy- a process where a community and nation allows their voices be heard by letting them pick those who represent them? Why not also weigh in on issues and proposals that will affect their communities, jobs and families? Voter apathy isn’t- by any means- new. Though society will make excuses for it known.

What Is Voter Apathy?

Our nation has always been in favor of two parties or two choices: federalist vs anti-federalists, Coke or Pepsi, paper or plastic and, of course, Republican or Democrat. Could this be part of our problem? Is there a generational problem with younger voters dwindling in numbers while older generations hold voting more sacred. Furthermore, do anti-fraud measures suppress voter rights? And finally, should we punish those who don’t do their part during election season? Curing Voter apathy could be the first step in making our country the great democracy where the people decide, and I think this essay will shed light on ways to make voter turnout percentages climb higher. The alternative is the loss of our freedom.

Voter turnout percentages in American elections is actually much smaller than people would think and other countries have better numbers. With all the polling locations opened in all the different areas of cities and counties, one would expect higher numbers. A place of business will often open more locations because of increased customer demand, and the American population isn’t falling in numbers, but our voting numbers still remain low. In 1998, the nation had only reached a voter turnout of 42 percent of among all ages (Hebel, 2007). What was even more saddening was voters aged 18 to 24, which reached only 17 percent in that group (Us Census, 2000). Why was this? Wouldn’t young Americans enjoy a new-found freedom in voting and get engaged about it? When we’re young, we get excited about all the new things we’re allowed to do when we reach a certain age- things like driving a car, drinking booze, or going to see R-rated films without our parents escorting us. Reaching voting age should be treated as a milestone; after all, most of those mentioned privileges wouldn’t be possible without the democratic process that made those proposals into freedoms we can enjoy.

Remembering the Florida Fiasco...

These pre-2000 numbers might be just a reflection of attitudes after the two-term Clinton Administration, when Americans seemed to be frustrated with leaders and/or their critics. Then came Florida and the Presidential Election between candidates Al Gore, and George W. Bush. During that election, there was a “6 percent error increase in ballot rates” (Koch, 2001) as told by former President Jimmy Carter who monitored the event (para. 3). This was due to the antiquated “punch-card” system that was used, that often left ballots confusing to read and caused computers reading the ballots to generate results that weren’t intended by voters. The term “hanging chad” (para. 4) became the buzzword for marked ballots that featured bits of paper still attached to the card, making the reading computers possibly miss the selection. Adding confusion to ballot injury, the voting columns were difficult to decipher- something noticed by me personally. Senior citizens 65 years of age and older make up 17.3 of Florida’s population as of 2011 (Christe, 2011). Many of them became confused looking at the old fashioned ballots and punched in choices that they were not sure about making. Re-counts were conducted, a President was decided by unconventional means, and Bush won the election. I saw all this controversy as I was living in Florida at the time and to this day people are still outraged that our democratic system failed them due to old voting machines. Equipment so old that Representative Bob Ney, R-Ohio said they “Belong in the Smithsonian” (Koch, 2012 para. 19).

Voting 2.0

An example of a modern voting machine
An example of a modern voting machine

Upgrading Democracy...

Since then, newer voting machines have been implemented that utilize a touch-screen setup. The confusion over a choice has been reduced significantly thanks to easy-to-read screens that allow a point-and-touch interface for voters to make clearer choices. Election reform changes acted on in 2004 made use of these newer apparatuses, and despite “Murphy’s Law”, there hasn’t been a Florida-style fiasco since (“Election Reform: Michigan”, 2007 para. 5). It’s crucial to note that such technological upgrades tell younger Americans that our country isn’t behind in the times and is attuned to the electronic information age. The reward of upgrading our democracy was shown in 2008 when the number of voters in the 2008 Presidential Election showed a voter turnout of 61.6 percent among the voting-eligible population (or VEP) (“Voter Turnout Increases”, 2008). This increase wasn’t just because of our voting machine face-lift, but more about what was at stake in the election in 2008. Change was in the air, and the Bush administration wasn’t looked at favorably, making American voters feel that this was a “do or die” situation. Endorsements to promote what would be the first black-American President were at an all time high. The category of voters aged 18-24 were also more engaged in democracy.

Vote or Die, Motherfucker!

Americans’ civic attitudes through the years have been a roller coaster of faithful highs in our system and lows in its failures. Voter participation saw its increase in the 2008 presidential election because of a more diverse ticket and inevitable change that lay on the horizon at that time. Popular culture contributes to this system by running an uncountable number of campaigns that raise awareness of elections and the importance of voting. During the presidential election of 2004, Sean “P. Diddy” combs stressed the importance of “do or die” in voting with his message “Vote or Die” (“All Aboard”, 2004), a movement he campaigned to encourage potential young voters. With this vague, but still omnipresent slogan, Sean still stirs civic attitudes that encourage young voters to take part in the democratic process, telling them to “Bum rush those polls”(para. 24). Not the catchiest of phrases, but a step in the right direction. A rise in percentage among young voters could contribute to the rise in our overall turnout, even if their only source for current events is MTV.

The Problem Within...

Despite a steady climb in voter turnout since 1998, the leaders voted into office often contribute to the apathy epidemic. The most recent and controversial variable in election turnout has been voter registration laws. Voter ID laws in states like New Jersey have done well... to keep people from even bothering to register. Republican lawmakers of 16 states (Koch, 2012) have passed laws requiring voters to present a state-issued photo ID along with their voter registration cards in order to cast a ballot. This presents a limitation on voters that are older and might not have a state ID or lower income Americans with the same dilemma. It seems that the GOP fear the idea of voter impersonation. Not surprisingly, this measure has met with well-understood opposition from many, including Electoral Law Journal writer Richard L. Hasen saying: “It seems like an unnecessary solution to a nonexistent problem.” (Koch, 2012, para. 10). Percentages of voter fraud are low and imposing such laws are only working to discourage potential balloters. When people see this on the news or read of it in the paper, how could they not grow more apathetic?

Voting Abroad: What Other Nations Are Doing Right...

Even more discouraging is the statistic in how we measure up when compared to the rest of the world. European countries like Belgium and Germany report higher voter turnout percentages than ours. What are these countries doing that we aren’t? Germany in 2009 had a voter turnout of 70.78 percent. Only 1.44 of them were invalid (“Voter Turnout Data”, 2009). So not only do they score higher than us, but the instances of fraud are also quite low. Voters of that country are blessed with a luxury that America has yet to see in full: a greater range of choices.

While America normally only hears about two contenders during elections (Democrat and Republican), Germany has six. These parties are the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU), The Social Democratic Party (SDC), The Greens, Free Democratic Party (FDP), and its recent addition, The Left Party (BBC News, 2005). Aside from what might be an enormous-sized ballot, German voters get to hear about all these different groups. Each party represents a buffet of social and economic views from far right leaning, to moderates, to also more liberal-political ideologies. The three main parties have been the same since 1945 which were the CDU, CSU and SPD (para. 1), but even with just those three, German voters have one key party extra than most Americans hear about. I don’t know about you, but freedom of choice is something Americans value, and when you’re given only two options, it’s easy to not want to pick either one.

This lack of options is more the fault of Americans. We- as a country- have set this precedent of a two-party system and have shown little interest in breaking away from it. Sure, we might have other parties like the Libertarian and Green parties, but when was the last time we’ve given them any more than just a tiny percent of our attention? In order to best combat our epidemic of voter apathy, Americans must be aware that the choices haven’t always been “one way or the other”. Nothing is more annoying to me than hearing younger voters whine about “both parties are the same”, but then do nothing to support a third party candidate.

Also in Europe is the country of Belgium with a staggeringly high voter turnout of 90 percent (Patterson, 2011 p. 227)! So what are the Belgians doing right? One thing they use is a compulsory system of voting in place since 1892. In Belgium, if you don’t participate in elections, you pay a fine. If you still don’t vote after four elections you will be ineligible to vote for ten years (Frankel, 2005). While this all seems like unfair punishments, Belgium has done much to secure its 90 percent turnout by having election days on holidays (while people are off work), more party choices, and automatic registration system that makes cataloging to vote easier (Patterson, 2011 p. 227). There are no excuses not to participate in Belgium.

The idea of a compulsory system for democracy in America sounds practical; perhaps it has been considered in our history. This practical idea of increasing our turnout might sound good in theory, but it meets with great opposition: Americans that love freedom. People cannot be forced into the booths because such a thing could violate the Constitution. If the First Amendment is about the Freedom of Speech, then the freedom to not speak is also protected. That previous sentence would be better left to the Supreme Court to rule on, but the point can be seen of what Americans would feel: making voter participation into law would be wrong because our choices have become far too limited for us to make an informed decision. That being said, Americans have a responsibility to look into other candidates, and to support those choices to ensure they become valid parties. Why must we go on thinking that we only have two choices? Staying well-read of these other party choices could turn the tides of an election- putting the election more into the hands of the people; not just two powerful parties that are too powerful.


What Hank Green and South Park says...

YOU. MUST. VOTE.- Hank Green, youtube vlogger. September 21, 2012. (Green, 2012)

Voter apathy has been parodied by many American pop-culture parables. My favorite allegory of this social disease (oddly enough) was told by the animated cartoon series: South Park. The show’s subject matter is offensively offbeat, but it places fingers on the pulse of topical issues. One such episode tells the story of one of its main characters, Stan Marsh refusing to vote in an election that would pick out a new school mascot. The elementary school offered two choices, a guy dressed as a gigantic douche bottle or another costume of a “turd sandwich” (Stone, 2004). Note: I am not making this up, and please stay with me on this. Stan decides that he would rather sit out the poll because he doesn’t see the difference between the two. As crass and vulgar as this all sounds, its hidden message isn’t so dubious. Stan represents a sizable portion of Americans that have grown weary of our two-party system and hate being forced to make a choice between only two sides, neither of which they can find favor. We all represent a diverse range of political views and ideals; no two people think exactly alike. If voters had more choices, then perhaps we’d see larger turnouts. Young people could stand to learn from older generations that make informed decisions about issues, because young Americans aren’t immune to them. And though lawmakers will try anything to make voter registration a pain in the ass, staying informed of the loopholes will make it easier for us to vote those lawmakers and bureaucrats out of office. Failing to combat voter apathy could cost us our freedom by either giving birth to obligatory laws that would force us to fall in line, or even worse: lose the right to vote altogether.

Douche and Turd


All aboard P. Diddy’s political party plane - Entertainment - Music - (October 29, 2004). TODAY - Top News Stories, Video Clips, Recipes and Guests | Retrieved from: /t/all-aboard-p-diddys- political-party-plane/#.UJSL2WfWPEY

BBC NEWS | Europe | Germany's political parties. (September 6, 2005). BBC News - Home. Retrieved from

Brandon, E. (2012, March 29). Why Older Citizens are More Likely to Vote. Retrieved October 20, 2012, from money/retirement/articles/2012/03/19/why-older-citizens-are-more-likely-to-voter

Christie, L. (2011, May 26). The Oldest Places in America. CNNMoney - Business, financial and personal finance news. Retrieved November 1 2012 from

Frankel, E. (2005, July 4) Compulsory voting around the world | Politics | Latest US news, world news, sport and comment from the Guardian | | The Guardian. Retrieved from

Green, H. (2012, September 21). You. Must. Vote. YouTube. Retrieved October 20, 2012, from

Hebel , S. (2007, October 12). Youth Vote is Low, But on the Upswing. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved October 20, 2012, from

Katel, P. (2012, May 18). Voter Rights. CQ Researcher. Retrieved October 20, 2012, from

Koch, K. (2001, November 2). Election Reform. CQ Researcher. Retrieved October 20, 2012, from cqresearcher/document.php?id=cqresrre2001110200&type=hitlist&num=0

Patterson, T. E. (2011). Chapter 7:Political Participation: Activating Popular Will. In We the People (9th ed., p. 227).

Election reform: Michigan avoids some of the pitfalls ensnaring other states. (2004, May 7) Herald Palladium [St Joesph], p. Editorial. Retrieved October 23 2012 from http://

Stone, M. (Director). (2004, October 27). Douche and Turd. [Television Series Episode]. In T. Parker (Producer) South Park U.S.A: Comedy Central. Retrieved November 1 2012 from

United States Elections Project. (2011, December 28). United States Elections Project. Retrieved November 1 2012 from

Voter turnout data for Germany (Parliamentary, EU Parliament) | Voter Turnout | International IDEA. (2009). International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance | International IDEA. Retrieved October 20, 2012, from


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