The US voting system is so complex, it's no wonder voters stay home

by Joanne Black / 01 July, 2018
A voter fills out a ballot at a polling location in Bennett, Iowa, U.S., on Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Photo/Getty Images

A voter fills out a ballot at a polling location in Bennett, Iowa on June 5, 2018. Photo/Getty Images

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In the United States, turnout in the last mid-terms was 36.4%, the lowest rate for 70 years.

The US, which often speaks as though it invented democracy, offers a lot of opportunities for those who like to vote. Some of those opportunities – the mid-term primaries – are occurring now.

In this round of voting, people who are registered with either the Democrats or the Republicans can vote for the candidates they most want their respective party to field in each contest come the real mid-term elections in November. Here in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live just across the Washington DC border, candidates’ lawn signs are flourishing like weeds. The process varies state by state, but voters in this district are choosing Republican and Democratic candidates to contest one senate seat representing Maryland’s “District 8” in the US Senate, and the same for Congress. Other than the incumbents, the only local senate candidate I have heard of is convicted leaker Chelsea Manning. I do not fancy her chances. But wait, there’s more. Much more.

For Maryland’s state government, voters are picking candidates for governor, lieutenant [deputy] governor, comptroller, attorney general, one senator and three delegates. Locally, for the county, electors are choosing their preferred party’s candidates for the county executive, county council, state attorney, register of wills (like, why?), sheriff, judges of the Sixth Circuit Court, clerk of the Circuit Court, the board of education and the Orwellian-sounding “Party Central Committees”, which, as the name suggests, are elections for local officers of the Democratic and Republican parties.

For every position except the board of education, voters must be registered with either party in order to vote for their candidates. When you go to vote, you are given only the ballot for the party with which you are registered.

This is like the play-offs ahead of the finals. In New Zealand, I have scoffed at the suggestion that voting is onerous. Here it is a valid argument, although I do see merit in party faithful having a say in choosing their leaders.

This summary does not even begin to address the gerrymandering and various forms of disenfranchisement that go on to limit voter participation. Whether it works, or whether most people would not bother voting even if they could, is hard to say. Turnout in the last mid-terms, in 2014, was 36.4%, the lowest participation rate for 70 years. When it comes to democracy, too much of a good thing can be too much.

This article was first published in the June 30, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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