This article originally appeared in the Oct. 2, 2014 edition of Saugerties Times.
Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 4, is approaching. This year, we’ll have the opportunity to vote for a congressman, New York State offices (governor, attorney general, comptroller, state Senate and state Assembly), Ulster County sheriff, family court judge and town receiver of taxes. This is not a presidential election year, so voter turnout is usually lower. Why is turnout lower? Why don’t people vote?
Research has been done by the U.S. Census Bureau on presidential elections. In 2012, the reasons people didn’t vote included:
Too busy, conflicting schedule- 18.9%
Illness or disability- 14%
Not interested- 15.7%
Did not like candidate or issues- 12.7%
Other reason- 11.1%
Out of town- 8.6%
Registration problems- 5.5%
Forgot to vote- 3.9%
Transportation problems- 3.3%
Don’t know or refused to answer- 3.0%
Inconvenient polling place- 2.7%
Bad weather conditions- 0.8%
Some of the above reasons could be addressed with an absentee ballot. More of the reasons could be addressed if New York State had “no-excuse” absentee voting, doesn’t require voters to provide a reason why they can’t vote in person. Absentee ballots could address about 50 percent of the lack of voter turnout. There is a perception that if you’re over 65 years of age you get to vote absentee. This is true in other states, but not in New York.
You may ask why expanding absentee voting is important. For a democracy to work, people need to participate and voting is participating. We should be encouraging people to vote so that everyone feels like the government is “by the people, for the people.” New York State needs to institute no-excuse absentee voting. Our current state senator, Cecelia Tkaczyk, supports this and if the Democratic Party wins the majority this fall, she will be the head of the committee that would help make this happen.
Some issues, like “not interested” or “did not like candidate or issues” can’t be addressed via changes to the election rule. The only thing I have to say to people who feel this way is, if you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain. You’re choosing not to be part of the process, so you don’t have a voice.
Even more amazing is that some people never register to vote! For the 2008 presidential election, the Census Bureau found that the majority reason for people not registering to vote was “not interested in the election/not involved in politics.” It’s beyond me to understand how someone could feel this way, but in our country, they have the right not to vote. Other countries (Australia comes to mind) have a very high voter turnout (over 90 percent) because if a citizen doesn’t vote, they get fined. That’s not a bad idea. More people participating makes the government more representative of the people.
I’ve met young people in Saugerties who are not registered to vote. One even has a public sector job (a job paid for by taxpayers) and still there is no interest in registering to vote. Is this because people don’t feel a sense of community? Do they not feel like the key issues of today are important to them — like the environment and the impact of climate change, increasing the minimum wage, a woman’s right to choose, equal pay for equal work, good-paying jobs? Or do they feel like their vote won’t make a difference, even though the state senate election two years ago was won by 17 votes? Again, if you don’t vote, you don’t have a voice.
Another interesting fact is that even though congressional approval ratings are at an all-time low, the reelection rate of congressional members in the 2012 election was 90 percent. Congress is bad, but my congressman is OK —this seems to be the logic. I’ve also heard that 70 percent of the time people vote because they “like” the candidate and/or are familiar with the candidate’s name. Our current congressman is likable. However, I don’t think he’s doing the job that I want done in Congress. He often says he’s for something, and then votes against it. He signed the Koch Brothers pledge not to do anything about climate change that would carry a tax increase, against funding Planned Parenthood, against lowering student loan interest rates, and to shut down the federal government (more than one vote was taken and he voted the majority of the time to shut it down). He was definitely a player in the “do-nothing” Congress.
To me, we need to separate whether or not someone is “nice” and instead look at the job they’re doing. Ask yourself, are they doing the job that represents you and your values? If the answer is “no,” then vote for his opponent — Sean Eldridge.
Just be sure to exercise your freedom and vote. Too many people have died protecting our right to do so.
Beth Murphy’s column appears monthly.