Election Day came and went this past week without much of a peep by students. While the Dean of the College and a few select individuals made statements encouraging students to vote and take advantage the shuttles we’re offering this year, frankly few seem to have cared about this past Election Day nor have I seen much discussion among students regarding elections in general over the past few weeks. This is to be expected though; this is an “off” year in the election season and, at best, only a few local elections or votes are taking place. The question here though is if we should be happy that our election system has turned into this cyclical system that it is and whether we feel it best to make amends to our electoral ways.
The importance of Election Day is of course subjective. If a big referendum is taking place in your hometown, or perhaps an election care a lot about is taking place, you’ll certainly care about this election year more than if the most important thing that’s happening is an election for the same old local Board of Education.
This isn’t to say that I’m defining certain positions in government as more important than others—rather I am noting that what we’re seeing is a cyclical downturn in interest for this year’s election, especially when we look among Vassar’s population of college students and see such an apathy for voting in general, and even more so when we have “off” years. This downturn is apparent and doesn’t need justification, but the question to ask here is, “are we happy with this downturn existing?”
At a fundamental level, the idea of popular elections is something that is taken for granted by most Vassar students because of how commonplace it is on our campus and in America. This, however, is not true in every political sphere, and it is this fact that we often forget when we ignore our absentee ballots or choose not to go to the polls like many have this past 5th of November. After all, Election Day is supposed to be the ultimate form of political expression, aside from civil demonstrations. When power shifted from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans in 1800, it was believed by some a revolt would ensue to seize power of the White House. Today, we simply see Election Day as, at best, a small amount of expression and, for many, simply an inconvenience in our day to get to the polls. Our philosophies behind the importance of elections seem to have drifted away, even if the institution has become much more accurate and reliable in the last century.
So what can we do? Should we, like Australia, opt for compulsory voting? If you choose not to vote on Election Day in Australia, you must either pay a $20 fine in advance, have a really good excuse, or risk fines up to $200 and beyond (Australian Election Commission). It may seem extreme, and perhaps motivate people to not have interest in the candidates they’re voting for and, instead, vote for the sake of voting, but at the same time we, as a country, have a very low voter turnout as it is.
Another less extreme but still significant change could be making Election Day a national holiday, encouraging businesses to close and increase the accessibility of voting in order to actually allow those who want to vote be able to and simultaneously enjoy a day of rest. My parents, both full-time workers, often would have to find time to vote between bringing my sister and me to high school, while at work, or after dinner in the evening. Ironically, while in middle school I would get the day off to keep the building clear for voters while my parents would head to work. It seems in either of these cases we could see opportunities for improvement.
On the other hand, even though we have our cyclical faults in America, there are other nations in the world whose methods of voting and elections are not as cyclical and based on the parliamentary system. Depending on the nation, the prime minister may at their discretion dissolve parliament and call for a vote in the government’s popularly elected branch, often the lower house. While some nations, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, set stricter rules in recent years regarding the term limits and how often elections must take place, it remains a system that is significantly more chaotic than in America, where every term is a strict number of years. It’s curious to ask if America’s system, the presidential one, would have something to gain from a system like the one within the United Kingdom, Canada, or elsewhere.
However we don’t have to look to other nations around the world to draw conclusions on better methods of elections. Compulsory voting is a form of negative reinforcement, encouraging action by implying negative consequences for those who are disobedient.
One way around this could perhaps be to incentivize voting, rather than to punish those who choose not to vote. For example, if I were to vote in a general election, perhaps I’d receive some sort of tax credit or other literal, tangible item for participation. This is looked down upon for a number of ethical reasons though, in a hypothetical sense, it doesn’t hurt to ask what benefits could come from it.
Another, perhaps even simpler, means of encouraging a greater voter turnout could come from a manner of convenience. Getting to the polls, quite frankly, is an issue of economic status to say the very least, and as I spoke of earlier making a holiday out of the event would at least try to encourage greater voter turnout for elections years both important and unimportant alike..
However, there are other less drastic steps that could be taken to offer similar results. Efforts to offer online or alternative voting options—such as those offered in the wake of Hurricane Sandy last year—are one such example. Another would be offering free stamps to those who choose to absentee ballot, as opposed to forcing the inconvenience and the cost on those who actually care enough to vote. These are a but a few ways we could perhaps break down barriers that restrict or discourage voting across the United States every year.
In the end there are matters at hand supporting and opposing the nature of our election process. It certainly isn’t the same as Australia, and it certainly isn’t a parliamentary system, and it certainly can use improvement. Perhaps what is so interesting about all of this though is how no one seems to care very much for these issues unless it is an election year. It’s a sort of vicious cycle that we, as a nation, continue to feed into. Like Election Day though, we will continue to see the talking points bubble up year after year, probably for as long as we exist as a nation.
—Joshua Sherman ’16 is an English major.