Voting Isn’t the Be-All, End-All of American Democracy

The upcoming elections will do more than determine the makeup of Congress, statehouses and city councils. They surely will generate another round of hand-wringing about low voter turnout and, in turn, the sorry state of American democracy.

In fact, the hand-wringing has already begun. A recent op-ed in The Boston Globe by Thomas Patterson, a Harvard election expert, predicts another dismal turnout this November.

That’s no surprise because, as a society, we have made voting the be-all and end-all of American democracy: Vote and you get to wear an “I voted” lapel sticker, signifying that you’re noble, engaged, worthy of our respect. Stay home and you’re apathetic, uninvolved, deserving only of disdain.

Our focus is misguided, however. We place far too much emphasis on the singular act of voting and far too little on the many important – indeed, more important – ways that millions of Americans practice the art of citizenship every day. We ignore the signs of a healthy democracy all around us.

What we really need is a broader view of what citizenship is, or should be, all about.

For starters, and despite what we always hear, we face no real “crisis” in voting — not in any historical sense. Although experts disagree on precise calculations, it’s fair to say that 50 percent to 60 percent of eligible Americans vote in presidential elections, fewer vote in midterm Congressional elections, and little has changed for decades.

Vote, the pundits tell us, or “your voice won’t be heard.” But voting is not the sole tool of political participation, nor even the most effective. Americans can phone, write, or e-mail their Members of Congress, write letters to the editor of newspapers, and speak up at town-hall meetings.

The fact is, voting determines who will serve, not necessarily how they will serve once they take office. Day to day, Members of Congress make decisions based on a host of factors. They hear from constituents as individuals, and they hear from constituents as members of organized political drives. They decide what bills and other initiatives to support based largely on that political pressure.

In essence, those who ” vote” but do not participate in any other way are the politician’s best friend: They help to elect the officeholder, but they do nothing to ensure that he or she will serve as promised.

But if voting is no real sign of true political engagement, neither is non-voting necessarily a sign of apathy. As a society, we especially bemoan the low voting percentages of our young people, arguing that it augurs poorly for our future. But, in a larger sense, civic participation has never been stronger among college-age Americans.

Consider: Teach for America, which sends thousands of top-flight college graduates to teach in some of the nation’s most troubled schools, received its largest-ever pool of applications this year. Applications to the Peace Corps were up sharply this year, as were applications to teaching programs in such cities as Washington and Kansas City.

To be sure, the increases are partly attributable to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but civic participation among the young was healthy to begin with. Nearly 75 percent of college students volunteered for community service in 1999, up from 62 percent a decade earlier, according to the University of California-Los Angeles and the Higher Education Research Institute. At Yale, where I worked from 1999 to 2000, students tutor inner-city children, work in soup kitchens, provide pre-natal care, help the unemployed find jobs, clean up neighborhoods, conduct museum tours and participate in a host of other activities.

What the Yalies and others seem to be saying is, they want results. They want to do more than choose someone to serve in Washington, where Members of Congress speak in a language that often does not compute for average Americans. They want to make an immediate, discernable impact – to teach a young child, to build a house for a poor family, to restore a neighborhood park.

What do you get by voting? You get the opportunity to elect someone whom you hope will be true to his or her word, who will make wise decisions and who will listen to constituents but also have the personal fortitude to buck public opinion. At the end of the day, you get a hope and a prayer.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t vote. We should. But we should stop congratulating ourselves for the mere act of voting. We should stop wearing our “I voted” lapel stickers as badges of honor, and we should stop assuming that voting lets us off the hook to do anything else.

Most of all, we should shift our single-minded focus away from the voting statistics and what we think they mean, and we should open our eyes to the richer civic participation that is occurring all around us.