Rule by Minority: The Problem of Low Voter Turnout

Posted: December 2, 2013 in The Hunger Games Op Eds

By Funkmaster Bunting

With the latest Hunger Games film smashing box office records this Thanksgiving weekend, questions concerning political agency and government have once again found a place in our popular culture. A year removed from the most expensive American presidential election, these questions seem to be more important than ever. For all the contentious issues tackled by the competing campaigns in 2012, there was an almost five-point drop in voter turnout, going from 62.3% in 2008 to 57.5%. With this year already seeing a government shutdown and a change in filibuster rules, it is not difficult to see the effects.

Discussing issues of political apathy, Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy takes place in the country of Panem, a dystopia in which the government of the Capitol oppresses citizens in other districts. The citizens of the Capitol, despite knowing about the treatment of those in the district, choose not to get involved in exchange for the comfort which they receive from their government. The Hunger Games trilogy is the perfect example of a government run by a powerful minority to the detriment of the majority. When the President of the United States is elected by only 29.3% of eligible voters and close to half of all voters choose not to become involved, it can similarly create some problems.

The biggest effect of a lower turnout is that each side claims a mandate. While Democrats were touting the win as an affirmation of Obama’s progressive agenda, Republicans were pointing out that Obama was the first president to be reelected with a lower electoral vote than his first election in almost two centuries . Additionally, when combining all of the votes for a party across the nation for the House of Representatives, Democrats received a million more than Republicans. However, the Republicans kept control of the House.

So, which side gets the leverage? If current history is any indication, neither side does. This allows for officials such as Sen. Ted Cruz and other members backed by the Tea Party to have legitimate grounds for grinding our government to a halt in order to exact specific policy goals. While the deficit shutdown is the latest example to come to fruition, topics such as immigration reform have already brought announcements of senators stating they will filibuster to satisfy their constituents. At the end of the day, can they really be blamed? They were elected with a certain vision by the populace, while the government as a whole was not.

So we are left with a dysfunctional government, one in which individual members are given a goal by their constituents but the body as a whole has no mandate. Additionally, our president, elected by a little over a quarter of all voters, does not have enough of a surge from the election to allow him to force Congress to act.

One of the biggest worries that political scientists have is that vocal minorities electing their representatives will begin to have an outsized sway on the direction of our country. If more and more voters begin to give up their political agency and exercise their right not to vote, the direction of the country will be decided by an ever-shrinking group, echoing parts of the government found in The Hunger Games. In that series, the Capitol represents an absolute minority of the Panem population, but it is nonetheless able to influence the lives of all those in the districts, individuals who have lost their political voice.

While those who chose not to vote in 2012 did so not because the ability was lost, but instead because of a conscious choice, the effects can remain the same. The select few will lead due to their strength derived from a vocal minority, affecting the lives of the silent majority. With several likely candidates for 2016 already laying the groundwork for their runs, it is important that they recognize the need for churning out a large amount of voters in general during this cycle, not just their base. If not, we could see a continuation of this downward turnout trajectory, and leave the victor in charge of a very different kind of America.

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