Thursday, August 7, 2014

Shrinking Civic Life

In the 19th century, voter participation  in Presidential elections often approached 80%  of eligible voters. Of course, back in them thar days, eligible voter meant white males twenty one years of age or over.

Over the course of several decades, reforms have made our political processes much more democratic. The right to vote has been expanded to include women,  African Americans, and those 18 years old and above.

Moreover, we vote on more issues than ever before. The direct election of United States Senators and the expansion of the referendum the initiative, and the recall has increased the opportunities for participation in civic life.

Yet these days voter participation in Presidential elections runs about 50 percent.

I wonder why this is so.

Modern life is certainly more regimented than 19th century life, constraining our time to participate in civic life. Both our work and our leisure time follow schedules these days.

Many more activities compete for our time and attention. One hundred years ago politics served as a main source of both education and entertainment.  With  no television, radio, recording industry, or organized sports, politics and civic life found little competition for the time and attention of the average citizen.

And perhaps we have too many elections. When citizens demand that more decisions be placed in their own hands rather than in the hands of their elected representatives, than means more demands upon our time and attention.

Maybe too many citizens believe their votes do not count. With large corporations, unions, and sundry other interest groups  wielding money and the ability to influence thousands if not tens of thousands of voters, perhaps many citizens experience increased frustration and a sense of powerlessness.

Participation in civic life, however,  has decreased on the state and local level as well.Voter participation in state and local offices remains even lower than in national elections. And who even shows up to meetings  where "the voice of the people" is supposed to be heard? Few citizens attend meetings of the  county commissioners or city council. Even at my local homeowners association meeting few residents attend.  At least five years have passed since we actually assembled the number of residents needed to constitute a quorum. The HOA continues to enforce the covenants, but without a quorum no improvements can be made.

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