America is supposed to be a free and democratic country, and yet lots of Americans don't even exercise their basic freedom to vote in our supposedly democratic elections. We have national elections every two years. In the more important presidential elections, 60% is now regarded as very high voter turnout, and mid-term elections run around 40%. On average, half the voters don't. Where does this "democracy deficit" come from?
Hint one: Freedom is about choice, but you need at least two options before you have any choice.
Hint two: Democracy is about freely choosing the political leaders.
Here's a few more hints. Right now, approval for the performance of Congress is reported to be 16%. Even considering the margin of error, it's certainly below 20%--and yet 90% of the incumbents will be reelected in a couple of weeks. Only 30 seats in the House out of over 400 are regarded as being 'in play' in this election. That's way less than 10%. We voters hate the job you're doing, but please keep right on doing it? Eh? What's wrong with this picture?
When they ask people why they don't vote, they have lots of reasons. For example, they say special interests and big money control the elections, or that they are too busy to be bothered. However, it really all comes down to the same thing, they think voting is not important. Voting doesn't matter. If you think something is important and makes a difference in your life, then you do it. Even though politics and political leaders obviously affect their daily lives in many ways, they deny the connection to voting.
Unfortunately, it turns out that they are right--because of the political practice known as gerrymandering. It's easy to find articles about why Americans don't vote. I just scanned a bunch of them--but not one of those articles mentioned gerrymandering. Since gerrymandering is apparently such a non-topic, I'd better explain the practice.
In 'polite company', gerrymandering is called redistricting, and so it is. Your voting district is the link between you and your Representative. The difference is that gerrymandering is redistricting with a vengeance, with a focused purpose. The goal of gerrymandering is to negate your vote by counting it in advance. Here's a simplified example to show how it works:
Our little election only has 100 voters voting in 10 districts. You need 6 votes or 60% to win a district. The voters are divided into two parties, A and B, with 48 and 52 votes, respectively. Ceteris paribus, you'd expect something like 6 seats for party B and 4 seats for party A, or maybe 5 and 5. Anyway, something that roughly reflects the voters' preferences. However, for this example party A is doing the redistricting, AKA gerrymandering. They divide their 48 votes into 8 groups of 6 and create 8 districts around those voters. The result is that they 'win' 8 of the 10 districts and have total control of our little legislature. Actually, 36% party A voters supported by gerrymandering would be enough to control this legislature, while a real base of 60% for party A could be translated into 100% of the legislature--0% representation for 40% of the voters. It all depends on where you draw those lines. (No, I don't dislike computers--but the tools don't care how they are used. Just ask Jim Baker and Colin Powell.)
The real world is more complicated, but most of the complications actually make it easier to gerrymander effectively, as long as you have the data and the computers to massage it with. For example, you don't need to 'waste' voters on 60% margins, but can go much lower if you have enough data about past voting behavior. You can't manage to pack your opponent's districts to 100%, but computer graphics make it possible to come amazingly close. Personal example time: A few years ago my own district in Texas was stretched over 160 miles so they could tack in enough voters to flip it.
Yes, there are many other problems afflicting the American democracy these days. Questionable voting machines. Partisan purges of eligible voters. Distorted news sources spewing propaganda. Terrible candidates. However, I think they are at worst #5, #4, #3, and #2 behind the clear #1 problem of gerrymandering. Letting them pre-count the votes really does make the free exercise of democratic voting seem pretty futile.
What can you do? Maybe not much, or maybe quite a bit. One funny thing about gerrymandering is that you still have your freedom, and if they misjudged you, then it's actually a little like getting two votes for the right of one. If they pre-counted you to vote one way, but you don't do it, then it's as though you subtracted that pre-counted vote. If you go all the way and vote for the *WRONG* party according to their gerrymandering, then from their perspective it's as though you've created an impossible vote. You weren't supposed to do that--which is why they put you in that district.
Think about it for this election.
One more closing note about the motivation for gerrymandering. This is actually one of the few areas where all of the professional politicians are united against us, the voters. It doesn't matter which party they belong to when it comes to the question of keeping their jobs. They all think they have a 'right' to job security, and gerrymandering is just the best way to 'protect their rights'.
Me, I think they're doing a lousy job and deserve to be fired.
(Also, the political gerrymandering needs to be taken out of the redistricting, but that's a longer-term problem.)