Low voter turnout a good thing to some, unfortunately

How can anyone say voting doesn’t matter? Tuesday’s election results are a striking demonstration of how turnout can tip the balance of political power in our state houses and our nation. Voting has an impact on policymaking in Congress and determines how critical resources are allocated to our local communities and schools. Voting matters. And who votes matters.

By all accounts, Tuesday’s turnout was abysmal across the nation, California included. Our state’s eligible turnout rate is currently estimated by the United States Election Project at 34.8 percent. If this number holds, then we will have set a record low eligible turnout rate for a general election.

But the issue goes beyond numbers. It’s a matter of representation – not just of how many vote, but who votes.

How many youths, lower-income voters and voters of color turned out? The news may not be good. Typically, midterm elections bring out older, whiter, wealthier and more educated voters than presidential elections. And low voter turnout typically spells an even more skewed electorate. In the 2010 general election, only 18.5 percent of California’s eligible youths ages 18-24 cast ballots. This election, the figure will be even lower.

In the lead-in to the election, a wash of news stories raised the alarm that turnout would be low. Nearly all of the stories were based on the assumption that readers would agree low voter turnout in our communities is cause for concern.

Not everyone agrees that this is a problem. Some seem to think that low turnout is actually good for democracy.

We know there are plenty of candidates and political strategists who have a vested interest in seeing few people turn up at the polls. But there are those who argue that some citizens shouldn’t be casting ballots at all, regardless of their political affiliation. For years, National Election Study surveys have shown that a large percentage of Americans – at times near a majority – have believed that only interested voters should vote in elections.

Arguments for voting restrictions often make a connection between the right to vote and the level of information or the amount of stake a voter has in the decisions being made. Only “informed” voters or those who “contribute” to society – like by holding a mortgage or paying taxes – should be allowed to vote.

We see these arguments for voting restrictions alive and well in many places in our society, but the Internet and social media make it all too easy to aggressively – and anonymously – propagate them. Read the comment sections of any news article on low voter turnout and you will typically see a large percentage of commenters who claim that the “less informed” should not be allowed to participate in the electoral process. You’ll also see a good number of comments that go further to express mocking or hateful opinions.

Youths have always been a major target of this kind of disdain. Read an article about low youth turnout and you are likely to find denigrating comments about “dumb kids” who don’t have a stake in the world or enough life experience to make good decisions.

Look further and you’ll also find comments about “illiterate” voters, low-income voters and even naturalized citizens. Here in California, an awful lot of folks want the world to know that Latinos are stealing their state and democracy. Some vitriol even comes from self-identified nonvoters, whose resentment over our diverse electorate seems to serve as a cover for their own nonparticipation.

Some of this hostility may spring from the growing polarization between blue and red segments of California. Whatever the source, it points to a dangerous trend. Democratic theorists warn us that we cross a line once we start requiring voters to somehow “prove” their worthiness to vote.

In the course of our history, we have heard many arguments justifying the systematic disenfranchisement of large segments of our population on a variety of grounds. Literacy tests, poll taxes and other restrictions were once used in many states to intentionally deny people their civil rights. Today, barriers to voting still exist. The National Commission on Voting Rights has documented that many voters across the country, including in California, continue to face challenges in exercising their right to vote.

Supporting these arguments can lead us to once again deny the vote based on racist, sexist or other discriminatory motives.

Our civic culture is anemic and needs reform. So how do we create a more inclusive system when many people aren’t supportive of a broader electorate? We should start by acknowledging how widespread these negative attitudes are in our public discourse. Exposing this part of our culture could be an important first step toward creating a stronger civic education in our schools and communities. Ignoring it might mean further eroding our democracy – something we can’t afford.