Democracy Lab

In Praise of Apathy

It's time to stop deriding the Americans who refuse to vote. They're trying to tell us something.

If you're a Republican, you probably don't like it when people say nasty things about your candidate. If you're a Democrat, you get steamed when the other side insults your president or your party.

But there's one electoral bloc that both parties can vilify at their leisure: those U.S. citizens who refuse to vote. They are routinely derided as stupid, or lazy, or hapless.

By now, many Americans have already figured out that there are problems with the way they vote. Start with the fact that some people's votes count more than others. The presidential vote on November 6 is shaping up to be a pretty tight contest, so it's entirely possible that the final tally will be close. But, as anyone who's heard of the electoral college already knows, U.S. presidents aren't elected on the basis of the popular vote. (Remember Florida in 2000?) So there's already plenty of editorial anguish over the inherent unfairness of this arrangement.

And then there's the controversy over registration. Republicans, warning against vote fraud, have introduced laws across the country that raise the bar for voter registration. Critics of these efforts point out that these laws address a kind of fraud that is unlikely to occur, and gloss over the type that is much more threatening (namely, the wholesale manipulation of electronic voting machines). Such critics accuse the Republicans of actually trying to suppress the turnout of groups -- minorities, the underprivileged, the elderly -- who are more likely to vote for Democrats.

These are all legitimate problems. But what I don't understand is why no one is addressing the elephant in the room: the fact that some 40 percent of Americans of voting age don't see any reason to cast their votes on election day at all.

In national election after national election, eligible voters who choose to refrain from voting make up what some political scientists have called a "silent plurality." There have been moments when that plurality was pretty close to becoming a majority. In 1996, 49.1 percent of the voting age population declined to go to the polls. In 2008, turnout of eligible voters went all the way up to 61.7 percent -- the highest since 1968, mind you. But the number of those who refused to vote -- or just didn't care -- was still significantly larger than those who voted for Barack Obama, the winning candidate. Non-voters, in short, make up the biggest electoral bloc in the nation.

You'd think this would be the occasion for some soul-searching. After all, how can you claim to have a democracy when your leaders are elected with a mandate from 30-odd percent of the country's eligible voters? It's estimated that some 90 million Americans will abstain from voting next month. You'd think that this would prompt us to ask some fundamental questions about the viability of a system that's supposedly based on popular participation but actually prompts rejection on a mass scale. (Participation is even lower for midterm congressional elections -- only 39 percent of the voting age population showed up in 2010, for example -- and lower still for elections on the state and city levels.)

Most of the articles on this subject lately view it through the predictable lens of how these abstainers would affect the election if they actually chose to vote. (The consensus seems to be that most of them lean Democratic, presumably because non-voters do tend to be poorer and less well-educated and thus more inclined to vote for liberal policies.) But perhaps reporters are asking the wrong questions.

Withholding one's vote in a presidential election is, in fact, an entirely rational response to the existing political order in the United States. The electoral college is a big part of the problem, of course. If you live in persistently Republican Texas, you have very good reasons to doubt that your vote for Obama will really influence the outcome. If you live in solidly liberal Massachusetts, casting a vote for Mitt Romney as president is likely to have little effect. (And don't get me started on voting in Washington, D.C.)

As a result, pundits and prognosticators say that there are only nine states that really matter in this year's presidential election: the so-called "battleground" states where the outcome is still uncertain enough to warrant attention from the candidates. As the Associated Press pointed out, modern campaigns now have the data to target voters even more narrowly than that, and they're now focusing on just 106 "swing counties" (out of 3,143 in the United States).

The reason, of course, is the winner-take-all system of the electoral college, which dictates that whoever wins a majority of the votes in a state gets all of that state's electors. In fact, the winner-take-all (or first-past-the-post) principle pervades American politics. As political scientists know, these sorts of electoral mechanisms tend to foster the creation of two-party systems. (The framers of the American constitutional system actually didn't want to have political parties at all, of course; but this is just another one of those cases where their design had unintended effects.)

The problem is that a two-party system doesn't come anywhere close to exhausting the range of options for political expression. Earlier this year, when pollsters decided to examine the motives of non-voters, one of the questions involved alternate political parties. Only 32 percent of non-voters agreed with the premise that two parties are good. 26 percent of them said that a third party is necessary, while another 27 percent preferred "multiple" parties.

That's why it's wrong to dismiss non-voters as ignorant couch potatoes. Under the American system, a vote cast for a third party (the Libertarians, say, or the Greens) is a lost vote. Your ballot has no effect whatsoever on the actual balance of power, so abstaining from an election that offers any chance to pick the policies you'd like to see makes perfect sense. (Sorry, Steve Carrell.) This is also why it's somewhat nonsensical to ask voters whether they'd vote for third parties under the current circumstances. What good would that do?

By contrast, systems based on proportional representation offer much more precise opportunities for the expression of political preferences. If you're a German, for example, you can cast a vote for the Free Democratic Party or the Greens, knowing that one of these relatively marginal parties might very well end up forming a coalition with the more popular Christian Democrats or Social Democrats and thus influencing the formation of the government. "Even minority parties are going to get seats," says Jeffrey Green, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. "There's a motivation for everyone to turn out even when no one gets the winner." It should come as no surprise that participation in German elections tends to be higher than in the U.S. (The world champions, perhaps, are the Swedes, who vote at a rate of about 80 percent of the voting age population.)

Proportional representation has many problems, of course -- most notoriously, fragmentation and chronic instability. See, for example, Israel, where tiny, radical parties often end up exercising power disproportionate to their actual electoral strength. One solution is to stipulate that parties have to get a certain minimum percentage of the overall vote in order to enter parliament. (In Germany, the threshold is 5 percent; in Israel, it's only 1.5 percent.) And, to be fair, it's worth noting that voter participation is trending downward in just about every established democracy.

That said, though, almost all of the countries that have achieved democracy over the past 30 years have adopted parliamentary systems based on proportional representation, approaches that are much closer to the German model than the American one. It's easy to imagine why. People who have finally obtained that cherished right to choose their leaders would like to think that their votes actually count. Like it or not, the institutions of American democracy just aren't a model for the rest of the world anymore.

Can Americans change their system to make it more democratic? A bit of tinkering around the edges is certainly feasible. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, apply proportional principles to the presidential election: electors from these states are awarded in proportion to the number of votes cast for each candidate. In other words, these two states have done away with winner-take-all. Not a bad idea. There's also talk of a far more ambitious plan: getting rid of the electoral college altogether and allowing direct election of the president by popular vote. The demand for this option seems to be growing. But can anyone really expect the two currently existing parties to agree?

One thing is clear: The fact of the matter is that half of the American population doesn't feel represented by the current system, and this disaffection appears to be deepening with time. The sense of exasperation with the existing two-party oligopoly ranges from establishment stalwarts like Tom Friedman to professional malcontents like Noam Chomsky. Meanwhile, the ranks of the abstainers continue to swell -- presumably because they feel like they have no stake in a political arrangement that doesn't address their concerns. Call me crazy, but this doesn't seem like it bodes well for the future of democracy in the United States.

David McNew/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Where the Arab Spring Has Not Yet Sprung

The spirit of rebellion continues to simmer in the Middle East and North Africa. But you won’t see much about it in the headlines.

The killing of Christopher Stevens and the storming of U.S. embassies around the Middle East and North Africa has understandably dominated the headlines from the region over the past few weeks. The turmoil has thrust the post-revolutionary countries of the Arab Spring -- Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and above all Libya -- into the limelight.

So yes, we know a lot more now about the militia problem in Benghazi. But what about some of the other countries where revolutionary discontent smolders on without attracting much in the way of press coverage? These are the places where we may be experiencing the political conundrums and diplomatic surprises of tomorrow.

Take, for example, Kuwait -- a staunch U.S. ally that has just been rocked by a new bout of protests. The ruling Al-Sabah family has controlled the place for the past two and a half centuries, and they've generally succeeded in keeping things firmly under their control (with at least one notable exception back in 1990). But can Washington count on things to stay the way they've been?

On October 7, the emir, Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, dissolved parliament -- prompting a sizable protest earlier this week (shown in the photo above) by 5,000 disgruntled oppositionists that was violently suppressed by the police. The protestors, a mixture of Islamists and tribal members, were demanding that the emir scrap a proposed electoral law that, they say, would skew the vote in favor of pro-government candidates. (The opposition turned in a surprisingly strong showing in an election earlier this year, apparently unnerving the ruling family.) The protest this week was the latest in a series of rallies by the opposition that have attracted large crowds, all of them calling for greater political accountability.

Now, this doesn't mean that the House of Sabah is about to collapse. But it certainly demonstrates that the anti-establishment momentum inspired by the popular protests of 2010 and 2011 has not dissipated. The grievances in some other parts of the region, indeed, are strikingly similar to some of those expressed in Kuwait.

Take Jordan, for example. The country, like Kuwait, is another one of Washington's most reliable allies in the region, and its monarch, King Abdullah II, has so far managed to avoid major instability by promising major reforms to a restive population. But on Friday, October 5, the kingdom's Muslim Brotherhood brought a big crowd out onto the streets of the capital Amman to demand changes strikingly similar to the ones expressed by the demonstrators in Kuwait. The Jordanians, too, were protesting an election law designed to boost the representation of rural areas (inhabited mostly by Bedouin tribes loyal to the king) over that of cities (home mostly to Palestinians who tend to side with the Islamists).

The king responded by dissolving parliament and appointing a new prime minister. But the Islamists say that they're boycotting the next election, scheduled for January 23. Some might argue that the king has survived worse challenges than this in the past, invariably banking on his role as the mediator between Jordanian Palestinians and the tribes. Yet now there are signs of increasing restiveness among the tribes, and the king may find himself hard-pressed to ensure their support amid the pressures from a sluggish economy and the rising violence in neighboring Syria.

It's too early to count Abdullah out. He's shown himself to be a highly resourceful leader in the past, and it's also worth noting that the long-established monarchies in the region have actually proven more resilient in the face of popular discontent than the dictator-led corruption. But the kings may not be able to dodge the bullet forever.

Take Morocco, often cited as the country that has managed grassroots discontent better than just about any of its peers. (It's been particularly lauded by the Americans.) King Mohammed VI responded to mass demonstrations in February 2011 by amending the constitution and holding elections. But his promises of wider reform have never quite materialized, and now his economic problems are deepening. On October 11, Standard & Poor's responded to the kingdom's deteriorating public finances by cutting its sovereign credit rating from stable to negative. Small wonder that Mohammed has just headed off to the Gulf States to solicit a bit of additional financia

And then there's that other trusty U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia. The House of Saud, with its nearly limitless financial resources, would seem to be among the least endangered of the region's established regimes. And yet, almost unnoticed by the outside world, the rebellion in the kingdom's Eastern Province continues to smolder.

The province, where the kingdom's richest oil fields are located, is also home to a large population of Shiites, who have endured persistent discrimination for their religious beliefs since the founding of modern Saudi Arabia in the 1920s. (The ruling family as well as a majority of the population are extremely conservative Sunnis who generally regard Shiism as a heretical offshoot of Islam.) The latest round of protests in the region started in February 2011, and they've continued ever since. The government poured additional fuel on the fire by arresting a popular Shiite cleric in July 2012. (He seems to have attracted the particular ire of the authorities by calling upon his followers to celebrate the death of Interior Minister Crown Prince Nayef in June, who was widely hated by the Shiites for his orchestration of the measures against them.)

The Saudi security forces have never enjoyed a reputation for restraint, and they seem to have had little hesitation about using force against the mostly unarmed protestors. As recently as September 26, three men were killed in the area of Qatif during a raid by Saudi law-enforcement organs. It's clear that the region remains on edge.

So do these problems pose a direct challenge to the regime? Probably not any time soon. But the lingering rage among Saudi Shiites shouldn't be seen as merely a local problem. Their discontent slots neatly into the pattern of sectarian tension that is becoming increasingly important throughout the region.

Qatif, it happens, is just a short distance away from Bahrain, where a Shiite majority doggedly continues to stage protests in the face of a brutal crackdown by the Sunni dynasty that rules the country. (It's no coincidence that the Saudis dispatched troops to Bahrain to help the ruling Khalifa family put down the unrest there.)  The arrests of opposition activists continue. The latest took place just this week, when the authorities detained Mohammed al-Maskati, the leader of a group called the "Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights." The government is still bombarding demonstrators with tear gas -- most recently on October 12. Iran, meanwhile, continues to assail both the Saudis and the Bahrainis for their treatment of their Shiite minorities -- a reminder that the Sunni-Shiite divide will continue to bedevil the region for a quite a while to come.

Put all these stories together and it seems reasonable to conclude that the Arab Spring still has its share of surprises left. The fact that the situation in each of these countries is at once intensely local and yet linked with larger regional themes (such as political Islam and the rising political self-awareness of Arab Shiites) merely adds to the unpredictability factor. And you may have noticed that all of these stories have one common denominator: In each case the government in question is an important ally of the United States.

And that, of course, raises the question of whether Washington has the power to influence matters for the better. There are many indications that U.S. policymakers have been gently trying to nudge the monarchs in question towards reform. In Bahrain, for example, the Americans have made efforts to mediate between the government and the Shiite opposition parties.

The question remains, though, whether nudging will triumph over volatility. The United States is unlikely to ratchet up the pressure for liberalization for fear of losing key strategic assets -- above all its naval base in Bahrain, its intimate military relationships with the Saudis and the Kuwaitis, and its privileged ties to the monarchs in Morocco and Jordan (the latter one of the few Arab countries to maintain civil relations with Israel).

This is likely to remain the same whether the next president's name is Obama or Romney. But no one should expect the citizens of these countries to play along.

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/Stringer/AFP/Getty Images