There are many institutional features, some entirely unique to the United States, that contribute to our abysmally low voter turnout. That low turnout is in turn a contributor to the election outcomes we live with. Two overlooked factors that help explain Tuesday's smattering of races across the country are the frequency of elections and the length of our campaign/election seasons. By a substantial margin, Americans are asked to come out to vote more regularly than citizens of any other democratic country. We have elections at the drop of a hat, thanks in part to our federal system in which statewide, local, and Federal offices are staggered and elected in different years depending on the state. General elections, municipal elections, recall elections, special elections to fill vacancies, runoff elections in majority-requirement jurisdictions, primary elections…the average American is asked to come out and vote several times per year. For an act in which most people are not especially interested or enthusiastic this is an effective death sentence. We barely care enough to vote in "major" elections like a presidential race or a midterm congressional election. By the time we get down to local and primary elections we're looking at turnout in the single digits of eligible voters in many places. When turnout is that low you know exactly what the electorate looks like: old, white, and cranky. And this is not unreasonable; who else but old, cantankerous white people have the time or inclination to pay a lot of attention to the Pigsknuckle County Board races? That hot race for Sanitation District Commission Seat 3B? That barn-burner of a school board contest?
Unfortunately these things, while not terribly interesting to most of us, are important. And we're usually too sick of politics to give them much thought when their turn comes.
The length of our campaigns is similarly fatiguing. The 2016 presidential race has been going on for roughly 3 months already, and the informal jockeying for even longer. We're already three months into an election campaign that culminates next November and we expect people to pay attention to and participate meaningfully in the 2015 elections – elections that most people don't even know exist? I am the first to revel in the joys of dumping on the civic capacities of the Average* American, but when it comes to the costs of voting and sheer fatigue I think we have a legitimate gripe. No other nation asks or expects people to pay attention to what has become one endless campaign cycle with regular exhortations to Get Out the Vote. I get paid to talk about American politics and even I get sick of the lack of ability to come up for air in this process. The nine-month long 2014 campaign barely ended before, after a break of a few months of unproductive Governing, states with 2015 races were flogging voters again. And the 2016 race didn't even wait until 2015 was over to not only begin but to reach the breaking point of sanity and overexposure.
This is the dilemma. Nobody is going to vote this often and pay this much attention to such a vast number of different elected offices and ballot issues unless their life consists literally of nothing but sitting in front of Fox News 24-7 and obsessively harassing the local newspaper's unpaid editorial intern. There are people who fit that description. And we really, really don't want them making our decisions for us. That is exactly what happens and will continue to happen in practice, though, since no amount of shaming or appeals to conscience will convince people with lives, shit jobs, family obligations, and a need to occasionally stop watching the news to preserve their mental health to vote this many times and consume this much OMG Election!!11!! stuff. It's like that fifth Red Bull of the day, the one at which your adrenal glands can be flogged no further and your body simply shuts down with fatigue and overstimulation.
It makes sense. It sucks that a lot of you didn't vote yesterday. It hardly makes you a bad person, though. It makes you a normal human being who has a limit, a limit that has been reached.