Sunday, October 26, 2008

To vote or not to vote - that is the question

It came as a surprise to me, but according to official information from the Danish Parliament, Denmark has one of the highest voting percentages in the world. As a matter of fact, 84,5 % of all eligible votes exercised their right to vote when we had a parliamentary election i 2005. I guess there are two major reasons for the Danish eagerness to vote. Firstly, being a small country we are always close to the people in power, and secondly, we receive out voting ballots automatically in the mail about two weeks before the election.

As a result, many Danes are interested in politics and know quite a bit about what is going on - both on local, regional and national level. A hot discussion topic right now is actually whether to lower the legal voting age from 18 to 16.

Being a Danish citizen, it thus puzzles me why many Americans don't seem to be interested in voting. In the 2006 presidential election, only 46.3 % of eligible Americans voted. After some research and many talks with people in DC, Virginia and Chicago, Illinois, I found some possible reasons.

  • Voter registration - or lack of it. Registering is a long and winded road, and many people never find the way through the jungle. At the same time, there are strict regulations for who can vote and before which date one must register. In many cases contact with authorities and/or re-registration is needed if a person moves.

  • Distance from the centre of power. The USA is a magnificent country of incredible size. I have now travelled there a few times, and I always get surprised by the long distances. However, as a result of the size, the diversity of cultures within the nation and the complicated division of power between federal and state level, it is only natural that many Americans feel a distance to the centre of power in Washington, DC. This distance has as well been a theme in the present election, where Sarah Palin was introduced as a breath of fresh air as she has not been involved in the political turmoil in the nation's capital.

  • Timing. Many Americans struggle to put food on the table and the present financial crisis has not improved their situation. Working double shifts has made it difficult for many to vote, as they will have to take unpaid leave to go vote. In that sense, the decision to place the election on a Tuesday has not make it easier for them. One solution to the problem is voting early, which is possible until Oct. 30th. Judging from the people we met on our trip, quite a few people have chosen to vote early in this election as to ensure their vote will count and as to avoid turmoil and queues at voting places.

  • Feeling of lack of influence on matters.  With the last two elections being so tight, many Americans feel a sense of hopelessness and we have thus met quite a few people who have told us that they don't see the point in voting. However, there is a sense of hope among people who tend to vote for the Democratic party, and we have thus also met quite a few newly registered first-time voters on this trip.
I recently saw an ad for an initiative that tries to get more young people exited about voting. The initiative is called the 'The National Student/Parent Mock Election' and in the 2002 election it managed to get more than 1 million students and parents involved in the 'trial-election'. The initiative is aimed at teaching the kids about democracy and all the practical things related to voting in an election. Available for free online is as well teaching materials and discussion topics on real life problems facing the USA at the moment.

Time will show if initiatives like these have any effects on getting out the vote, but no matter the outcome I see it as a good way to educate and engage young people in the nation's politics. Personally, I think that we need to honor the past and the people who fought for our rights (as women; African-Americans etc.) to vote. I thus see voting not only as a right, but also as a duty. I am not saying that making it against the law not to vote like in Australia is the solution, but how can I disagree and complain about my government and its politics if I didn't bother to vote?

Today's lesson is thus: please remember to vote. History shows that 100 votes can determine who gets to run the country for the next four years. Exercise your right to influence the election.


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