Is voting a form of conventional or unconventional political participation? I guess it all depends on your definition of . . . voting. For years I’ve been telling students about how my mother voted for Bill Clinton (first run) because she liked his hair (to be fair, she had also expressed the opinion that she thought Senator Robert Dole—Clinton’s opponent—was too old to be President). I also explain to my students why her comments could be so troubling to a son that teaches political science and who, incidentally, both worked on the Clinton campaign as a partisan staffer in Illinois and contributed to the Glass Ceiling Commission Report (sponsored by Senator Robert Dole of Kansas) while working at a California think tank in the early 1990s.
I share these stories with my students to illustrate the conundrum that I believe voting presents to academics and pundits alike. As a form of political participation it is routinely mentioned as one of the most conventional forms of political behavior practiced by Americans. A search of the thesaurus on the term “conventional” results in usual, established, standard, normal, etc. In other words, one would truly expect that voting is something done often and by many or most people whenever presented with an opportunity to do so. The problem is that in most elections most people who can don’t vote—that is by casting a ballot. Voter turnout (the actual percentage of eligible voters who vote in a particular election) in non-presidential elections rarely rises above fifty percent. In many local elections voter turnout is lucky to rise above twenty percent (many municipal elections fall into this category). Even if we just limit our discussion to people who vote, does my mother’s selection of Bill Clinton based on youth and attractiveness, and yes, years of party identification as a Democrat biasing her selection from the get-go, actually deserve to be compared to a person’s comparison of candidates on important policy differences? What if someone just walks into a voting booth, closes their eyes, and just starts poking holes in the ballot—is that voting?
In my estimation, if we used that actual meaning of the word “conventional” as our metric, voting would have to be listed as a form of non-conventional participation, right up there with attending political meetings, and participating in a demonstration (and let us not forget donating to a candidate or campaign, running for office, or even contacting an elected official, just to name a few). Truth be told, I just happen to believe in democracy as a form of government. I just don’t agree with the emphasis placed on voting at the expense of all the other ways a person can participate in governing—themselves, their workplaces, neighborhoods, cities, counties, states and even nations. What do you think? Does the material in your textbooks and course lectures support or detract from my basic thesis? I would like to know.
- Here Are The Ten States With The Worst Voter Turnout In America (businessinsider.com)
- Race/ethnicity and Voter Turnout (drhiphop85.com)
- Foreclosures impact California voter turnout (universityofcalifornia.edu)