The American People Have Not Spoken

[This article was originally published on December 4, 2010.  However, since the 112th Congress will convene in just a few days, the math is important.  Math counts -- really!  Actually, it's simple arithmetic.  I think the real problem, however, is not the arithmetic, but our political will.  Read and wonder with me.  Happy New Year, and happy 112th Congress.]    

For several news cycles after the mid-term election, this was a familiar claim: “The American people have spoken.”  “The American people have asked for a change.”  “The American people are not happy with the direction of this country.”  The American people want this or that….  On and on.

I wonder.  Have the American people spoken?  According to the United States Election Project at George Mason University, only about 40.3 percent of eligible voters actually voted in the November election[1] .

Voter turnout in 2010 varied from state to state.  This is no surprise.  For example, in Minnesota, over 55 percent of eligible voters turned out.  In New York only 32.1 percent turned out.  In Arizona, 36.6 percent of eligible voters turned out.   

Some Have Spoken

Across the nation on average, four out of ten eligible Americans voted on November 2.  This means 6 out of 10 eligible  Americans did not vote.  Six out of every ten eligible Americans in this country did not speak.     

I guess its fair to say, some of the American people have spoken.  Or, more accurately, the voters have spoken. 

Voting is essential for our political process.  We rely on voting to voice our preferences – this is a good thing – and we always stand by the results.  But, abiding by the results of the mid-term election is not the same as claiming “the American people have spoken.”  They did not. 

For the record, if you did not vote, shame on you.  If you did vote, you have the right to gripe or rejoice, depending on your perspective.    

An Authentic Political Process?

I think our political process would be more authentic if more of us voted.  If more of us voted, we might be able to claim after an election, “the American people have spoken.”  Forty percent is not the American people.  Furthermore, in most states, because only a slight majority of votes were cobbled together for a victory, significantly less than 40 percent of the American people spoke about anything with consistency.  For example, in the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race, the winner of the mid-term election received 1,995,026 votes, or 51 percent of those who voted, but only 20.8 percent of eligible voters in that state.  In the Wisconsin U.S. Senate race, the winner received 1,125,636 votes, or 51.9 percent of those who voted, but only 26.8 percent of eligible voters in that state.    

In short, a word to the more arrogant among us who inflate the significance of the election:  Sure, the U.S. House has shifted to a Republican majority, and the U.S. Senate has become more balanced.  Rightly so, based on the votes tallied.  But let us view the results with reason.  Let us refrain from the hyperbolic claim that the results of this election in any way represent the voice of the American people.

This much we might claim: Sadly, regardless of one’s political leaning, too few of us voted.

© Copyright by Jeffrey Y. Harlow (2010).

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  1. http://elections.gmu.edu/Turnout_2010G.html .  An eligible voter is someone who has the legal right to vote in our country due to age and residency status.  Some eligible voters chose not to register, others registered but chose not to vote.  To be fair, the 40.3 percent figure is a bit higher than for previous mid-term elections, but not by much.
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3 Comment(s)

  1. Hi Jeff,

    Interesting article. While I don’t necessarily disagree with you, I don’t agree with you either.

    It seems to me that 100% of eligible voters expressed their opinion. Some by voting. Some by not voting.

    Those who voted felt strongly enough about the outcome of the election to go to the polls. Those who didn’t feel so strongly didn’t.

    This does not necessarily mean that they didn’t express their opinion.

    While one clearly cannot argue from silence, it may simply mean that they were reasonably well satisfied and, therefore, were content to sit on the sidelines and watch what happened.

    After 16 years as a pastor in the VA Conference, the clearest analogy I can think of is what happens during what I call “Silly Season,” which is the two or three months before the annual PPRC recommendation regarding the return of the pastor.

    Those who feel strongly one way or the other make their opinion known. All too often they raise issues that either have little or no basis. And they usually try to make it sound as though everyone in the congregation is up in arms against the pastor. When, in reality, the ones upset are the vocal minority who are trying to engineer a change of pastors.

    Meanwhile, the majority of the congregation is perfectly happy with the current pastor and, therefore, doesn’t make their opinion known. Consequently, they are content to either welcome the current pastor back or greet a new pastor in June.

    Experience suggests that these same seemingly apathetic/passive folks will be among the first and loudest voices heard when they feel strongly one way or the other.

    I suspect the same is true of the mid-term election voter turn out. Those who were passionate about it voted. Those who were reasonably satisfied sat it out and went with the flow.

    Larry

    Rev LJ Stevens | Dec 5, 2010 | Reply

  2. Thanks for your interesting perspective, Larry. You raise a good point. Not voting offers an opinion. But, is that “silent” vote apathy, satisfaction, laziness, or ignorance? I wonder how long we can tolerate being “reasonably satisfied” if it means the loud voices will create destructive change.

    jharlow | Dec 5, 2010 | Reply

  3. That is THE question.

    Unfortunately, if my experience as a pastor is anything to go by, the vocal minority will almost always carry the day unless we learn how to manage change and deal with resistance. I believe it was Aubrey Malphurs who discussed how to manage the process by helping the Early Adopters and Early Adapters have the successes that bring the Middle Adopters on-board before the Never Adopters (all 2-4% of them) derail a change process.

    I don’t know how that can be applied to the voting process. Perhaps the first step is to note that the vocal minority is just that: a vocal minority. And then look for ways/issues that will help convince the Middle Adopters in the populace to get more involved.

    Personally, I doubt it will work. But it is a thought.

    Rev LJ Stevens | Dec 6, 2010 | Reply

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