In his speech from Selma, Ala. on Saturday, President Obama described an apathy toward voting that extends beyond the barriers that are so often a focus of attention. "If every new voter suppression law was struck down today," he said, "we’d still have one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples." He continued:
Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. What is our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?
He's right about America's ranking among the world's voting countries. Data from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance puts America fairly low on the list on a ranking of turnout for the most recent presidential race among members of each country's voting-age population. You'll need to scroll down pretty far on the list under this map. (Darker colors below indicate higher turnout rates.)
The United States: Where people turn out to vote more frequently than residents of Poland -- but not quite as often as people in Palau.
Obama's point reflects a racial dichotomy as well. During the most recent election, Democrats were routed -- and in its aftermath, Obama pledged to listen to those who didn't vote, a group which includes a higher percentage of the nation's black population. While in the two most recent presidential years black turnout has met or exceeded that of whites (according to data from the Census Bureau), in off-year elections, blacks vote far less frequently.
(These graphs reflect percentages among the citizen voting-age population, a smaller group than what IDEA looked at, bumping up the percentages.)
"What is our excuse today for not voting?," Obama challenged those listening. The answer, of course, is that far too often, there is no excuse.