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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Voting isn’t fun

by Philip Martin | November 8, 2022 at 1:02 a.m.

I remember when election day was fun.

That was more a function of my age than anything else; when you are young doing anything adult is exciting. Whether it’s ordering a beer or voting a straight ticket, it’s all new and interesting. I didn’t even mind waiting in the DMV to get my first driver’s license.

It’s not just that the novelty has worn off. I remember when you could joke with your neighbors about political differences of opinion, when people didn’t define themselves by the preferences expressed in the privacy of the ballot box. I remember when it was considered rude to ask somehow how they voted; most people wouldn’t tell you if you asked. Because it was their personal business.

My mother still won’t tell me how she votes. And I know better than to ask.

Even in the way back there were political hobbyists willing not only to tell you how they voted, but to loudly tell you how you should vote. We called these people “cranks” back when they were in the minority, and sometimes we crossed the street to avoid them. Maybe they weren’t quite shunned, but their toleration came with eye rolls.

Now we’re all pretty much cranks. Because discourse in this country has been reduced to baseball caps and bumper stickers, and the TV people figured out how to market politics as cheap entertainment content.

Now politics is simultaneously deadly serious and supremely silly, the sort of thing that no decent person wants to step in. We’ve left it for the charlatans, the attention-whores and the delusional. There are a few good people seeking political office, but if they ever put me to work asking questions in one of these absurdist spectacles they call debates, my first and most important question to every candidate would be, “Who hurt you so badly that you have to try to fill your interior abyss with the approbation of strangers?” and my second and much less important question would be, “Why do you want so much to be the boss of us?” If they come back with some fake humble malarkey about wanting to be of service, we could hand them some plastic trash bags and a reflective yellow vest and one of those pointy-sticky things, drop them off on the side of one of our state’s beautiful byways and have them really be of service. We could sign them up for the Peace Corps. We could put them to work delivering meals to the elderly.

But we know they don’t really want to be “of service.” What they want, most of them, is to have a title and a staff and a budget, and to have us coo and ah at them when they dine out among us on some lobbyist’s dime.

They want the ability to bestow tax breaks and bidless contracts, and to be able to pick up the phone and do a little something-something for the constituent who can repay the debt with a favor to be named later. They want to get proximate to money and power because that stuff just naturally gets in your clothes and hair when you’re exposed to it. (It’s not even your fault.) Oh sure, there are exceptions. There are polka-dotted zebras in the world too. And competent French rock ’n’ roll bands. If you can imagine it, it probably exists somewhere in this world of mystery and wonder. But it’s not the rule.

It probably never was the rule. Human nature is human nature. On the other hand, human beings in general and Americans in particular have gotten demonstrably dumber and less interested in nuance over the past six or seven decades. So while candidate quality has always been a concern, nowadays it seems that the moral cretins are catching up to the mediocrities running for office.

Which sucks the joy out of voting.

In theory, I don’t have problem with suffrage being restricted to the highly motivated. People have as much right to opt out of the political process as they have a “duty” to participate. Electing not to vote is not always an irresponsible act; while newspaper columnists are supposed to harp about the obligations of citizenship, there’s an inalienable right to be disgusted with or disengaged from the lawmaking process.

If you don’t want to vote, that’s your right.

On the other hand, there are those who would prefer that ordinary people who cash paychecks every other week and live off the proceeds not vote too hard.

Because if regular people turned out to vote at the same rates they did between 1936 and 1968, we’d have the same sort of New Deal-type policies we had during those years. (Between 1936 and 1968, voter turnout in presidential elections fell below 56 percent of eligible voters just one time, in 1948.) Since then, we’ve been above 56 percent only twice: in 2008, when Barack Obama was running for president for the first time, and in 2020, when 62 percent of the voting age population turned out. (Joe Biden was the eventual winner. Duh.) Now the numbers aren’t all that cut and dried (nuance exists, whether you believe in it or not). Not everyone in the voting-age population is eligible to vote, and as our population ages and older potential voters make up a larger percentage of the pool, turnout is likely to go up simply because older people are more reliable voters than young people.

But the prime reason that there are a lot of policies in this country most Americans don’t agree with is because the people who don’t agree with those policies don’t vote. America would look different—maybe not better, but different—if 65 percent of voting-age adults consistently turned out to vote.

It’s in one party’s interest to get regular Americans to the polls. It’s in the other party’s interest to dissuade them from voting. Some Republicans have come out and said the truth out loud lately; it’s better for them if certain people don’t vote.

And it’s not hard to dissuade people from voting. All you have to do is make it a little less convenient for them, or convince them their vote doesn’t much matter. You don’t have to brandish weapons or install literacy tests to suppress voting, all you have to do is make people stand in longer lines or travel further to the polls.

All you have to do is make it less fun.


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