The United States may be the world’s oldest continuous democracy, but experience does not equal enthusiasm.
The U.S. had the fourth-lowest voting rate in its most recent national election among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development — putting it ahead of only Japan, Chile and Switzerland.
The 2008 presidential elections boasted the highest U.S. turnout since the 1968 elections — and more than 4 in 10 Americans aged 18 or older still stayed home.
This isn’t altogether surprising. In addition to general apathy, the influence of money in politics, the electoral college and gerrymandered congressional districts makes plenty of citizens feel as if their vote just doesn’t matter.
Voting rates are even more abysmal during midterm elections when the presidency is not at stake: During the 2014 midterms, less than half of eligible voters in 43 states even bothered.
Yet even if you’re a Democrat in bright red Texas, a Republican in deep blue Vermont, or a disenfranchised resident of Washington, DC., here are a few reasons you should still hit the polls.
1. It is not just the president on the ballot
Control of the White House may indeed hinge on just a handful of swing states. FiveThirtyEight estimates that the Republican presidential nominee could lock in a big victory by winning eight states Democrats won in 2012 — Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and would only need to receive receive 3 percent more support from five main demographic groups.
But how much the next president can do depends on whether his or her party controls either the Senate or the House. The size of those parties’ majorities also makes a difference. A filibuster-proof, 60-vote supermajority in the senate, for instance, can enable or cripple a president much more decisively than a simple majority.
And you don’t have to live in a state that is competitive in the presidential election for your vote to make a difference at the congressional level. The competitive Senate and House races may not be in presidential swing states at all. There are five senate seats that are complete toss-ups, according to the Cook Political Report, including one in Illinois, which will almost certainly vote for the Democrat in the presidential election. There are some 16 House seats that Cook rates a complete toss-up, including seats in Arizona, New York, Minnesota and Texas, which are not heavily contested states in the presidential election.
Then there are the other important state and local officeholders on the ballot.
“Americans like to elect everything down to dog catcher — from the White House to the courthouse,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “I am often told that in the South, the most important person to vote for is the sheriff.”
Referenda on the ballot can also make a major difference. Four states have legalized recreational marijuana in the past four years through ballot initiatives that did not require any new state legislation, let alone an act of Congress or the president.
Local elections are also where citizens decide on the issues that can most directly affect you, including reproductive rights, public school control and discrimination laws.
2. Higher turnout makes our democracy more representative
Ever wonder why nearly three-quarters of the American public supports raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, but Congress refuses to act?
There are many reasons, of course — among them that people do not vote on economic concerns alone and big business interests have poured major resources into lobbying against it.
But at least part of the answer lies in the fact that many Americans who support those policies do not bother voting — particularly in the midterm congressional elections, when the presidency is not at stake.
That is especially true because the groups most likely to support progressive policies like a minimum wage hike — people of color, low-income people and young people — turn out in particularly low numbers in midterm elections.
Nearly 80 percent of people with yearly incomes of $75,000 or higher voted in the 2012 election, compared to just 60 percent of those earning less than $50,000 a year. By age, voter participation of older Americans eclipses that of those under 30.
To be sure, all voters turn out less during the midterms. Twenty-nine percent less white people voted in 2014 than voted in 2012, according to a September analysis by the progressive think tank Demos. But over the same period, there was a 40 percent dropoff in African-American turnout, a 43 percent dropoff in Asian-American turnout and a 44 percent dropoff in Latino turnout.
The consequences of ignoring congressional races can reverberate for years. In 2010, the Republican party not only took back the House of Representatives, crippling President Barack Obama’s agenda, but it also won a majority of state legislatures at an especially decisive moment. Since the decennial census took place in 2010, those state legislatures were able to gerrymander congressional districts in a way that will likely keep the House under Republican control until after the next census in 2022. Pennsylvania, for example, which voted for Obama twice, has just five Democratic congressmen out of a total of 18 House seats — a result many attribute to partisan redistricting after the 2010 census.
3. To the voters go the spoils.
Elected officials do not only respond to voters’ policy preferences, they also award a greater chunk of public resources to the people who bother to show up. A 2012 study conducted by economists from Dartmouth and Yale found that Southern state governments began transferring more funding to counties with larger black populations after the passage of the Voting Rights Act gave African Americans the franchise in 1965. The average county where segregation-era “literacy tests” had severely limited black voting before the VRA, state funding per person increased some 12.4 percent, as even politicians who previously supported segregation sought black votes.
Likewise, a 1962 Supreme Court ruling requiring states to draw state legislature and congressional districts that actually reflect the distribution of the state’s population and equally represent all state residents resulted in an uptick in state funds to previously underrepresented counties, according to a 2000 Yale-MIT study.
The selection of candidates the American public gets to choose from in the general election in November is decided by the much smaller sliver of the population that votes in primary elections.
Then-candidate Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses was determined by the merely 16.1 percent of eligible Iowan voters who participated. And that major victory kicked off a streak that ultimately catapulted Obama to the Democratic nomination.
When you consider that some of the most decisive primary battles in the presidential race occur in just four states representing one in 25 Americans — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — you realize just how small a fraction of the population is really making this important call.
If, for example, you think Bernie Sanders would make the Democratic Party intolerably hostile to business, or that the GOP stands to lose the presidential race in a landslide if Donald Trump is the party nominee, you might want to weigh in on who makes it to the final ballot.
So register as a party member and turn out on primary day. If you live in one of the many states with open primaries — including South Carolina, where the Republican primary is on Saturday and the Democratic race is on Feb. 27 — you do not even have to register with a party. You can just show up.
And in states, congressional districts and cities where one party is dominant, primary elections are often the only election that matters. That is typically true, for example, of the Democratic mayoral primaries in the country’s three largest cities: New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
5. The margin of victory can be important.
Let’s say you do not live in a state that is competitive in a presidential election, or one where a Senate seat is a toss-up. Perhaps the member of Congress who represents your district has a lock on the seat thanks to gerrymandering, and as an incumbent will almost certainly be re-elected — as 95 percent of House incumbents were in 2014.
You still should vote in your election, because even if the candidate you loathe is destined to win in a landslide, you can make a dent in their margin of victory. That limits how much of a “mandate” they can claim once in office, encouraging them to promote more moderate policies so as not to jeopardize their re-election.
“People who are elected in squeakers are reminded of it constantly,” the University of Virginia’s Sabato said. “Look at Bush before 9/11 — people would not let him forget he was not elected by a plurality.
6. Voting is a right generations of Americans struggled to win — and people in other countries are still fighting for.
Citizens may take their right to vote for granted, but it wasn’t truly that long ago when entire swaths of the population — like women — were denied that right. Women were granted suffrage in 1919, meaning the grandmothers of many not-voting millennials were alive during a time when they were prohibited from casting a ballot.
Since the era of women’s suffrage, African Americans, Asians, Latinos and Native Americans have all faced obstacles to voting at various times (and plenty of the issues are still ongoing). Accessibility issues continue to disenfranchise citizens with disabilities of every age and race.
When minority voters get to the polls, the influence is undeniable: The Brookings Institute pegged Obama’s 2012 victory to high minority voter turnout.
The relative ease of voting for many citizens — particularly wealthier white ones — makes it easy to forget the difficulty and outright danger of voting in other countries. While U.S. voters may be deterred by a long line at the polls, voters in countries like Afghanistan contend with terrorist violence. And despite threats from the Taliban, Afghan women in 2014 turned out in record numbers — often risking their own lives — to cast a vote in local council and presidential elections.
7. Voting is your voice.
Comedian George Carlin may disagree, but voting is an important, meaningful way to back the issues you care about — and the representatives you think can best effect the changes you want to see.
“As Madonna sings, ‘Express yourself!’” Sabato said. “Thats what it’s about. It’s a civic duty and the desire of people who care about public affairs to express themselves.”
If nothing else, voting is a license to justifiably complain about your elected officials. Your grievances will carry more weight if you speak out as a voter trying to hold your candidates accountable for promises they made.