Saturday, November 12, 2016

2016: The lowest voter turnout in 20 years & what can be done about it

I guess you'd assume that the most contentious and bitter campaigns since at least 1968 would have elicited big voter participation, people anxiously lining up behind one or the other of the candidates. But, preliminary indications are that 45% of eligible American voters didn't cast ballots this year.

That's appalling when you consider all of the sacrifices made--from veterans who fought in war to civil rights campaigners who demonstrated peacefully for civil rights--to secure the right to vote.

Were 45% of the eligible voters in this country saying that having the right to vote was unimportant to them? Some, maybe. A recent study showed that something like a quarter of all millennials in some western democracies don't believe in democracy in the first place. ("Replacing it with what?" is the logical question.) 

But I think that there's a simpler explanation, well articulated by Pastor Jeff Schultz when I asked Facebook friends to offer up their theories for the low turnout this year. Jeff wrote: "Two candidates with the highest disapproval ratings ever."


Most people didn't like the two major party nominees. (They also didn't like the two most prominent minor party nominees.) And so, disgusted with their choices, people stayed away from voting. (Even when many of them, like those of us in Ohio, could have voted in the privacy of their homes.)

Both major party nominees were so disliked that I told my family a year-and-a-half ago, when Donald Trump was polling less than 10% among Republican voters and it was becoming clear despite all of there political and financial advantages that Hillary Clinton was going to have to fight to get her party's nomination for president, that Donald Trump was the only Republican nominee who could make Hillary Clinton president and that Clinton was the only Democratic nominee who could make Trump president. Given that fact, the whole business was an uninspiring race to the bottom.

It's pretty clear that most of the 55% of eligible voters who did cast ballots were less than enthusiastic about it. "I can't wait for this to be over," many told me as the campaign wore on. "Yes," others would agree, "but then one of these people will be president."

So now we have a president-elect. His job will be to do what no president since 1974 has been able to pull off: restore Americans' trust in the government and the presidency, even if they disagree with some of the president's policies. There are many structural and cultural elements that will work against accomplishing that goal, it should be said. And even the honorable people who have served in the Oval Office since Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace have been less than successful in inciting Americans to trust their elected leaders or our constitutional system.

But for a President Donald Trump, working to restore trust in the presidency, the federal government, and the Constitution is Job #1. There are reasons to doubt that he's the person for the job, of course. (Just as there would be reasons to doubt whether Hillary Clinton, had she been elected, was the person for that job.) But, if Trump isn't going to take on that goal, he may as well stay in Trump Tower for the next four years. We need a president who will keep that goal at the forefront of their thinking.

But there are hints from US history on how the president-elect might pursue that aim.

When George Washington came to office as our first president, the United States was a rag tag collection of self-interested former colonies that viewed the new Constitution with wariness and sometimes, overt hostility. Washington, of course, had an advantage on Trump (and most presidents) on taking the oath of office. Washington was a hero. But Washington's #1 goal was earning the trust and support of the new nation for its government.

One way he did that was by undertaking a strenuous (and sometimes life-threatening) tour of the thirteen original states, letting people see their president, ask their questions, hear his perspective.

The new president could take a page from that playbook. He should make a point of going to the places where people are most wary of him: mosques, African-American and Hispanic communities, universities, women's groups, the Pentagon, and so on. Above all, like Washington, the new president should listen. (Check out T.H. Breen's book on how Washington forged the new American nation with his tour of the thirteen states.)

This would be a good way for Mr. Trump to proceed, I think.

Like now.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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