Lots of reasons why only 1 in 2 Americans vote, none very good

This is the time in a major election cycle when you usually see editorials bemoaning the fact that only about one in two eligible Americans will actually vote in the general election.

A recent study shows the percentage voting during the last 18 general biennial federal elections—half of them presidential years—is 5o to 55 percent. (There are often much higher turnouts for more local balloting.)

That places the U. S. 39th in the world. Malta (a Mediterranean island nation) is first at 94. Chile, Austria, Belgium, Italy and Luxembourg are all above 90 percent.

Should more Americans take advantage of such a priceless privilege? Of course. But there’s a lot more to the question of who votes and why than you might think.

For starters, some nations make voting mandatory. The largest, and the one whose system most closely resembles ours, is Australia. In the land down under anyone who doesn’t vote is automatically fined $20. If you don’t pay that fine promptly, the fine goes to $50 plus court costs.

That just doesn’t sound like true freedom. And still, only about 80 percent of Australians vote.

There are also mandatory voter laws in Italy, Belgium, Greece, Brazil and Mexico, other countries well ahead of the U.S. in voter participation.

But some have pointed out, the key is how big a stake residents feel in how elected officials in some far-away place actually impact their daily lives, not threats or fines.

Switzerland, whose 54-percent turnout is almost exactly the same as in the United States, is a case in point. Swiss government is so decentralized the federal government has such few powers and many people just don’t bother. Most important decisions are actually placed before the public in referendums. So the Swiss vote in those instead.

And No. 1 Malta? It’s small (more people live in Fort Worth) has a powerful central government with two strongly ideological parties. Each vote counts plenty.

Still, it’s difficult to come up with a good reason so few Americans—relatively speaking—cast votes. Maybe it’s because of a word that’s come to be regarded as old school.

That word is “duty.” And that’s a shame.

Vote, Tuesday or before. There’s still time.—M.B.

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2012-11-01 digital edition

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