Participation, however, has had highs and lows in our history, partly by design. During the first Presidential election, for example, voter turnout was likely less than 2% of the total population (1). While it is true that many felt George Washington's success as military leader made him the obvious choice for the office, there were other factors that kept participation low.
First, there were procedural factors. Even when a citizen wanted to vote in the presidential election, there may not have been an election to vote in. Since each State could decide how to apportion its electors, many States simply apportioned electors via discussions in the state legislature. As amazing as it sounds today, in most states, there were no direct elections held to vote for the President because the State legislature apportioned electors. This created a psychological factor driving down voter participation -- why bother to vote if someone else is simply going to decide the matter, independently of your vote? There were also logistical difficulties for many just to get to a place where they could vote. Even notifying Washington that he had been elected took two months (1).
Secondly, there was the question of enfranchisement - who is allowed to vote? Even where there were elections, citizens might not have been allowed to vote for President. For example, in order to vote, a citizen might be required to hold property, to pass a religious test, or satisfy other gender/racial/ethnic restrictions (1, 2). Over time, however, things would change.
|From Wikimedia: U.S. presidential election popular vote totals as a percentage of the total U.S. population.(3)|
But why is it important to continue on this path of broader involvement and more direct self-determination? After all, millions of people already have the right to vote, but do not exercise it. Elected officials provide many channels for constituents to share their thoughts: email, web-forms and social media channels. Tens of millions of citizens could use these existing channels to give feedback, but choose not to. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on sophisticated polling on topics, candidates, and policies. Is all this not enough to keep our democracy vital and responsive?
The key reason to continue to pursue broader civic engagement is its link to personal agency. Personal agency is the idea that you can imagine different futures, make choices, and take action for a better future for yourself (and hopefully your community). The rise of powerful institutions that decrease the responsiveness of government to the needs of everyday citizens has reduced our sense of agency as a society. Many say "My vote doesn't really matter" or "All politicians are corrupt and only listen to big money," evidencing a lack of personal agency, a decreased belief that they can, and should be acting to make things better rather than resign themselves to the way things are. This nation was founded on principles of self-determination, granting citizens the right to significantly shape and re-shape policy to meet their needs for coordinated collective action. When more people believe they can make a difference, they do make a difference, and this effort benefits society.
So where do we start? Clearly, there are already lots of ways voters can speak to elected officials (and candidates for elected office). And yet, despite the easy availability of Web access and electronic communication, we see only incremental improvements in civic engagement. Tools like email, web-forms and social media channels have existed for more than a decade. But these tools do not do enough to reduce friction to create a continual, comprehensive, and collaborative process for civic engagement. They do not benefit from all that the private sector has learned about capturing and retaining the attention of the public. If our methods of civic engagement do not improve, civic engagement will fall further behind other media channels in the competition for the public's attention.
Connected-Citizen intends to reduce friction for voter participation and for elected officials to understand and make sense of comments from the thousands of voters in their district. Come join us in setting a course for broader and more frequent engagement with our elected officials and democratizing democracy.
1. "1788-89 United States presidential election," Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 31 Aug 2019. Web. 11 Oct 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1788%E2%80%9389_United_States_presidential_election
2. "23b. The expansion of the vote: a white man's democracy," U.S. History Pre-Columbian to the New Millenium, 2018-2019, 15 Oct 2019. http://www.ushistory.org/us/23b.asp
3. "Voting rights in the united states," Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 15 Oct 2019. Web. Oct 16 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting_rights_in_the_United_States