Making Americans great voters again
Americans love to shop. We don’t like to vote.
Nearly half of us brave the brick and mortar gantlet of Black Friday (Nov. 23 this year) on the day after Thanksgiving. That is many more than voted in the most recent midterm election: 36.4 percent of eligible voters, the lowest turnout in 70 years.
We Americans love to eat—again, way more than we enjoy casting ballots. The National Institute of Health reports that more than 66 percent of us are either overweight or obese. If two-thirds of us were to vote in the upcoming midterm—coming up Nov. 6, in case you’re interested—it would likely trigger a recount, if not a special counsel’s probe.
Before I offer some solutions to this national disgrace (spoiler alert, they involve combining civic duty with certain activities we all like), let’s examine how low we can go. How pathetic are we Americans as voters? The Pew Research Center reports that only seven of 10 voting-age U.S. citizens are registered to vote. Conversely, 67 million of us are not registered.
In the United Kingdom, our former colonial oppressor, the voting rolls include more than nine in 10 eligible Brits. Ninety-six percent of adult Swedes are registered. We in the United States lag behind virtually all of our democratic peers.
When actual turnout is factored in, the pathos deepens. Two out of five eligible Americans, or some 90 million of us, sat out the 2016 presidential election. Of those who did go to the polls, less than half (46.1 percent) voted for the current president.
Let’s do the math, shall we? Our nation’s chief executive captured the White House with the support of less than one in four Americans who were eligible to register and to vote. That’s why talk about a “landslide” is pure irony.
It wasn’t always thus. Voting used to be a big deal to Americans, a grand holiday combining duty and frivolity. Citizens and their families trekked for miles, sometimes all day, to get to the polls. And when they got there they cast votes, hung out and partied like it was 1776. Here in Connecticut, they socialized and gorged on “election cakes,” whose ingredients often included a healthy shot of rum. We still have the recipe.
They celebrated voting because it was new and radical. Colonial Americans did not get to vote for the king, who asked nobody’s permission when appointing the governors of the 13 colonies. Short of rebellious acts like the Boston Tea Party, colonists had no say in the taxes they paid or the wars they were expected to fight.
How do we recapture that enthusiasm for the revolutionary act of voting? We can start by making Election Day fun again, a national holiday that embraces consumerism as well as the commonweal. I don’t think Lincoln and Washington will mind if we replace President’s Day with Voting Day. We honor them every time we cast a ballot. Instead of the rush of President’s Day sales, let’s have Voting Day discounts. Do your civic duty, and you get to save at patriotic shops and restaurants.
On election day here in East Haddam I already eat for free. On the street leading to the polls is a row of pop-up diners, one for each party: Democrat, Republican and Independent. There’s coffee, cider, donuts, and even egg sandwiches to fortify us solid, vote-casting citizens. My small town’s body politic has found common ground: cholesterol.
If it isn’t haute cuisine, it could be. And in the spirit of fun, citizens even could vote twice—calm down now, Republicans—once for the candidates and then for the best partisan chef. Spicing up Election Day will improve turnout at a time when Republicans are pushing various measures that tend to suppress democracy, such as photo ID requirements and overly aggressive purging of voter rolls.
We can weave voting back into the social fabric of our nation. I hail from a long line of regular voters. My mother cast her first ballot in 1932—for Herbert Hoover—and her last in 2008 for Barack Obama. She served as a poll watcher for years. For her, Election Day was a grand social occasion. It wasn’t a chore; it was fun.
We can get that feeling back. What could be more American than making a national holiday of eating, shopping and voting?
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