A senior Iraqi election official recently “estimated that half of Iraq’s 15 million eligible voters will take part in this month’s national election.” Of course my initial, or rather reflexive, reaction was outrage. Only 50 percent? I thought we were spreading freedom and democracy! But, heeding the old adage about what those in glass houses shouldn’t be doing, I looked into how we’ve been doing here at home.
A report by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance found that voter turnout in the United States ranks 139th out of 172 countries. Even more embarrassing, two of the countries ranked ahead of us — Russia and Ukraine — aren’t exactly known for being bastions of democracy. Neither is Haiti, another country keeping us rather close company.
The picture painted by the youth vote isn’t much prettier. In 1996, the voter turnout rate amongst 18 to 29 year olds was 34.9 percent, less than Colombia’s average countrywide voter turnout. And over the years, the youth voter turnout figure has more or less danced around 45 percent, right around Chile’s rate.
Perhaps complacency is the issue. For example, a few months after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, black voter turnout in Mississippi was 74 percent. In 1969, Tennessee showed a 92.1 percent turnout rate amongst the recently “re-enfranchised” Black population. Now, you’ll be hard pressed to find figures that high…in any community. Worse still, we no longer even express outrage over widespread election corruption, nor do we work towards the election reform we so desperately need.
In our fervor to “spread democracy,” perhaps we need to start appreciating it ourselves.