On April 26, 1994, South Africa held its first national elections since the official end of apartheid in 1990. Nearly twenty million people, or roughly seventy percent of the adult population, lined up to vote. Over the ensuing three days, people drove cars, rode in trains, and walked– often for dozens of miles– to line up at polling places. These millions of people, most of whom had never voted, many of whom had never seen a polling place, and many of whom could not read or write cast ballots that day. The news of this incredible voter turnout made international headlines. In November of that same year, the United States of America held their mid-term congressional election. In this wealthy, industrialized country which had been holding organized elections for over two centuries, less than thirty-nine percent of the eligible population came out to vote. Four years later, in the 1998 mid-term elections, the percentage was even lower. However, it would not be fair to harshly criticize U.S. voters for such apparent electoral apathy. For the average citizen, voting in the U.S. can be a thorny and mystifying experience. A step-by-step examination of the process itself can shed light on the prohibitive psychological, mental, and physical barriers confronting the would-be American elector.

First, the would-be voter must select a political party. This can be exceedingly difficult if one is inclined to think deeply about one’s personal involvement in the democratic system of government. The behavior of recent presidential administrations exemplifies the impenetrability of party ideology. For instance, the Democratic Party has traditionally touted itself as the champion of working people and the protector of civil rights. However, Democrat Bill Clinton’s administration was responsible for enacting the North American Free Trade Agreement. This international treaty facilitated the export of U.S.-based manufacturing operations to foreign nations with lax regulations and lower standards of living, resulting in the depression of the domestic job market. Thousands of U.S. workers saw their standards of living drastically lowered as they were forced from good-paying factory jobs into service sector jobs that offered much less in the way of salary and benefits. Furthermore, Clinton’s Crime Bill and his “welfare reform” initiative actually worsened the ongoing conservative trends of pouring increasing amounts of public monies into the building of more prisons while snatching cash away from much-needed social programs.

On the other hand, the Republican Party bills itself as the supporter of fiscal responsibility, the defender of states’ rights, and the proponent of smaller, less intrusive government. The administration of Republican George W. Bush has seen the largest growth of federal government—mostly in the bureaucratic behemoth known as the Department of Homeland Security—since the Second World War. Massive amounts of spending, coupled with questionable tax cuts, have driven a budget surplus at the beginning of the Bush regime down to a deficit of over $500 billion. Also, the Bush administration has repeatedly attacked state sovereignty, either judicially or rhetorically, on such culturally charged and national security-irrelevant issues as medical marijuana and gay marriage. With such a wide divergence between word and deed on the part of the major political parties, it is no wonder that so many potential voters become dispirited to the point of neglecting the voting process altogether.

The second troublesome step in the voting process is self-education. Even though there are only two major political parties in the U.S., sifting through the seemingly endless parade of presidential candidates in order to select a party nominee is often an arduous task for the individual voter. Since the majority of presidential candidates have some governmental experience— all but eight former U.S. presidents held some major elected office before becoming chief executive— the voter must rely on the individual candidate’s political record in order to determine his viability for the office. Such records are just a few taps and clicks away on the internet, as they are made available on websites maintained by organizations like Public Citizen and Project Vote Smart. Researching a candidate’s legislative voting history in this manner can be a time-consuming process; many minutes can be spent obtaining and perusing the voting records of a congressman. Moreover, taking the time to visit such treasure troves of information can divert valuable time away from more urgent activities such as selling an old Hoover Steamvac on eBay or keeping track of the statistics of a place-kicker on a fantasy arena football team.

The final arduous task of the electoral procedure involves actually getting to the polling place. While in most locales polling places are conveniently located at familiar, easy to reach places such as schools, churches, and firehouses, finding the time to get to one can often be a chore. If a potential voter has a nine-to-five job, for instance, it might be hard for him to find time in his schedule to make it to the polling venue. Polling places usually open at six or so in the morning. Taking the necessary measures to get to one, however, might mean waking up too early, costing the hard-working person vital minutes of much-needed rest. Worse yet, making the early trip to the polls might detour the potential voter from his usual stop at the local Starbuck’s and his obligatory Grande Kenyan Mocha Latte. If he was considering voting after work, the elector might consider that his jam-packed in-box will preclude a timely departure from the office. The subsequent delay, exacerbated by a stopover at the polling place, could put him in jeopardy of missing the critical opening moments of American Idol.

It would be all too easy to scoff at Americans for the seeming contradiction between their frequent incantation over the hallowed institution of democracy and their less than faithful participation in the same. A more cynical person might even posit that the ostensible raison d’etre of U.S. foreign policy, the spread of democracy, is belied by the U.S. electorate’s own apparent indifference to the practical applications of the ideal. Such negative rhetoric fails to take into account the daunting obstacles faced by the average potential voter; it is likely to be heard only from the lips of the sort of recalcitrant malcontents who vote for third-party candidates.

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