The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How much better would government be if only the people who truly cared voted?

A polling station in the Terrace Park Community Building in Cincinnati on Nov. 8, 2016. (John Minchillo/AP)

High voter participation is often mistakenly hailed as the benchmark of a successful election, leading to the temptation to place blame when turnout is low, such as accusing Republicans of suppression. A perfect example was provided recently by Kenneth Chenault, a former chief executive at American Express who has led an array of Black business leaders speaking out against Georgia’s new election law. According to the New York Times, Chenault said, “There is no middle ground here. You either are for more people voting, or you want to suppress the vote.”

Georgia, Texas and other GOP-controlled states have come under fire for crafting new legislation allegedly aimed at suppressing minority turnout. The facts, as they have slowly been reported, have been more nuanced, but critics abound. Democrats claim that GOP-backed reforms are an unnecessary remedy to a nonexistent problem rooted in former president Donald Trump’s unfounded claim that the 2020 election was stolen. But Republicans have long viewed safeguards such as strengthening voter ID standards and encouraging in-person voting as important to ensuring that only legal votes are cast.

But the true culprit behind low turnout isn’t a political effort to suppress the vote. It’s a more basic condition that knows no partisan, racial or socioeconomic boundary: apathy. Millions of people — affiliated and unaffiliated, of all races and backgrounds — don’t vote for many reasons, including because they simply don’t care. It matters not to them who holds office, or which ballot issues are approved or defeated. It is a choice perhaps not to be admired, but, in a free country, one to be tolerated.

Acknowledging the role of apathy is to understand why Chenault’s “either-or” declaration is off base. Whether suppression has occurred should not be gauged by the level of participation, but rather by whether eligible voters were denied a reasonable and equitable means to exercise their franchise when they wanted to. Total voters are mostly determined by the level of enthusiasm for the issues or candidates in any given election. We cannot, and should not, require people to care, nor devise too-clever legislation designed to overcome apathy when the privilege of determining the makeup of our government is not inspiration enough.

Some people vote in every election. Others vote only when they’re excited about a particular candidate. In 2012, claims that Republicans were suppressing the vote were belied when President Barack Obama was reelected in part because African American turnout surpassed that of White people, 66.6 percent compared with 64.1 percent, according to the Brookings Institution. By contrast, in 2016, apathy negatively impacted Democrats while Trump motivated rural White people. It’s still too early to draw firm data-based conclusions as to what degree the pandemic-related expansion of mail-in votes contributed to either the turnout or result last year. But my bet is that the emotional fervor both for and against Trump drove the record participation.

In typical U.S. elections, the truth is, turnout is usually shamefully low, and it would likely be even lower if not for sophisticated get-out-the-vote programs employed by both parties and others. A considerable portion of every election’s ballots are cast by voters only after they are hassled, prodded and shamed — something I know well from my days in politics when my colleagues and I would spend Election Day calling Republicans — most of them White and rural — and begging them to go to the polls. Democrats do the same with their constituents.

Our politics are less about achieving good government and more about winning and keeping power through the machinations of the cleverest campaign gurus. The successful ones are feted by glowing reviews and rewarded with the golden tickets of book deals and television gigs. “We knew we had to maximize turnout in that part of the state” is a typical post-election boast, complete with self-congratulatory descriptions of how the miracle was achieved. It’s understandable — there are no prizes to be won by sitting back and waiting to see who votes on their own initiative.

How much better would our government be if elections were decided by voters participating only because of their own sense of duty and patriotism, not because they were harassed by partisan operatives, or because the government ordered more drop boxes conveniently placed or millions of ballots mailed directly to homes?

Ideally, every American would be so enthusiastic as to line up at the polls days in advance, as they would for free concert tickets or when Walmart opens its doors for Black Friday. But what really matters is that every eligible citizen who wants to vote is able to cast a ballot — yes, without any unfair impediment, but it’s also okay if some planning and effort is required. Leaving everyone else to the comfort of their indifference would be fine, even if it made get-out-the-vote programs obsolete, and “suppression” an incessant but unfounded allegation.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: This isn’t just voter suppression. It’s a war on local control.

Gabriel Sterling: Mr. President, your misinformation on Georgia’s voting law is dangerous

Michelle Au: Georgia Republicans were quiet about their attack on voting rights, but, oh, did they laugh

Max Boot: Georgia Republicans can’t admit the real reason they’re restricting voting