Tomorrow’s election will see the culmination of over 19 months of campaign promises and incessant media coverage of the United States presidential election. Regardless of its outcome, this election will go down as one for the history books, especially considering the extremely negative views of the major party candidates that most Americans hold. Although elections tend to bring out the best and worst in Americans, the fundamental right of all U.S. citizens to vote (suffrage) is the key to our democratic core. The ability to exercise this right is not shared by all global citizens and is a part of what makes America great.
Democracy, according to Merriam-Webster, is very simply defined as, “government by the people.” The term was first attributed to the political system of Athens, Greece around 500 B.C., wherein most free adult male citizens were permitted to vote directly (through a show of hands or secret ballot) in the legislative and executive activities of the city. In this system, all votes of the people present were counted, and the majority’s vote was the final decision.
Unlike Ancient Greece, the U.S. is not a “pure democracy” reliant solely on its citizens for governing, but rather elects representatives to speak for its people within the government. This type of political system is more commonly referred to as a “democratic republic,” though even this term is not used consistently to describe governments that rely on free and fair elections (e.g. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Democratic Republic of Congo). Regardless, most in the world recognize the U.S. and 116 other countries as democracies.
When the U.S. democratic system was first set up, most of the Founding Fathers were not in favor of political parties, as they found them divisive and disruptive. Over time, political parties have become the foundation of the democratic process and critical for getting any presidential candidate the traction and funding they need in a U.S. general election. The political landscape is currently dominated by two parties and their nominees: Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party and Donald J. Trump for the Republican Party. Four other major candidates are also on the ballots of various states, including Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party), Jill Stein (Green Party), Darrell Castle (Constitution Party), and Evan McMullin (Independent).
In the U.S., all American citizens over the age of 18 are eligible to vote. According to the Pew Research Center, the age groups with the most numbers (and thus, voting power) are those within the 18-35 (Millennial) and 52-70 (Baby Boomer) age ranges. Despite their voting power, Millennials are frequently the group that shows up to the polls in the fewest numbers, with only 46% of eligible Millennials voting in the 2012 general election (compared to 69% of eligible Baby Boomers). This discrepancy is likely due in part to the more “nomadic” lifestyle of younger voters, but may also be due to the inability of many political campaigns to meaningfully engage Millennials. Regardless of the reason, it is apparent that Millennials have significant power to sway elections if they would simply show up to the polls.
Despite the importance of the quadrennial presidential elections, midterm elections held every two years are equally important. In these elections, one-third of the 100 Senators and all 435 Members of the House of Representatives are up for reelection. As such, they offer Americans the opportunity to significantly affect the balance of power in government and provide any needed checks on the president in the middle of his or her term.
Unlike general elections, midterm elections frequently see lower voter turnout — 36.4% of eligible voters in 2014 compared to 58.2% of eligible voters in 2012 — suggesting that much of Congress is actually voted into office by a minority of Americans. Considering that the President’s party typically loses seats in Congress during these elections, it is interesting to imagine what could happen in government if the general election population turned out in similar numbers for midterm elections.
As mentioned previously, the right to vote is key to democracy. All American citizens over the age of 18 are eligible to vote if they are registered to do so with their state or local election office, which can be done online, through the mail, or in person. Keep in mind that each state has different deadlines for voter registration, thus it is important to register early. Eligible voters are then able to vote during each election by visiting a polling station on Election Day, mailing in an absentee ballot, or through in-person early voting available in several different states. With all of these options, there is little excuse to not get out and vote!