Here's the truth: Until an email arrived in my inbox on Friday asking if I was planning to vote in the midterm elections and if not, would I consider writing a piece explaining why, it hadn't even crossed my mind to vote today.
That struck me as a little strange. I like voting. I enjoy going to the polls, making small talk with aging volunteers, marveling at the shocking inefficiency, filling in the bubble, and then putting on that "I Voted" sticker to show it all happened. And I've paid attention to the 2014 midterm cycle, from the endless discussion about Senate control and the GOP's panic over the possibility that Independent Greg Orman could beat their incumbent in Kansas, to the absurd fight between forecasters Nate Silver and Sam Wang. Hell, I even watch Meet the Press on occasion. And not just for Chuck Todd's creepy Fu Manchu.
So why hadn't I thought about voting? Part of it, I'll admit, is that I'm a moron and simply didn't connect the news I was reading to the fact that I should walk down the street to the polling station. But it's more than that. It's a political fatigue from the past, from the present, and from the future; a lack of enthusiasm and excitement about the entire political process. And I'm not alone. While voter turnout is always lower for midterm elections than it is in presidential years: Since 1984, between 36.4 and 38.8 percent of voters cast ballots in midterms, compared to 49.1-56.8 percent that voted in presidential elections. Turnout in 2014 is expected to be down even further, and the lack of interest among voters under 35 is already shaping up to be a major story. That's a quite a change from 2008 and 2012, when young voters were widely credited with helping President Barack Obama win elections.
If we're looking for reasons behind the poor showing among young people this year, it makes sense to start with that very president. Regardless of one's political persuasion, the 2008 and 2012 elections felt like they mattered. The numbers back that theory, as 25 million more people voted in those races than did in 2000, despite a population increase that would suggest a jump of half that number. Obama made voters, especially young ones, believe in Hope and Change (or want to fight against it), and we voted accordingly. His reelection campaign inspired similar, although somewhat dampened, passion, or at least the fear that whatever the president's failings, his Republican opponent would be worse.
What's happened since then? Not a whole lot. Obama's approval ratings plummeted, then recovered a bit, then fell again, and are currently hovering at the lowest level ever as we approach the midterms. Even his staunchest supporters must be at least a little bit disappointed in the difference between the outsized ambition of the 2008 campaign and the depressing realities of his legislative achievements. Meanwhile, most people think members of that ineffective legislative body known as Congress should be taken out behind the Capitol building and shot to put everyone out of their misery. The last time more than a quarter of Americans approved of Congress's performance was on June 19, 2011, so those numbers account for at least part of the tepid midterm enthusiasm.
But not all of it. Another problem is that the 2014 midterms aren't really about anything. Voters, especially young ones, need a compelling narrative to get them to the polls, and that just hasn't existed this fall. While polls have shown a potential voter increase in states where midterm Senate races are tight, dig a bit deeper and the idea that any race matters this year falls apart. New York's Jonathan Chait makes this point nicely:
Gridlock exists because Obama and House Republicans cannot agree on legislation... There are no plausible circumstances in which the Senate would block a deal struck between the House and Obama, because, whichever party controls the Senate, its ideological center will sit comfortably inside in the enormous space between Obama and the House Republicans. Ergo, the party that controls the Senate has no impact on legislative outcomes.
Later in the same piece, Chait offered this thought: "You have to go back to 1998, when Republican control of the House was not seriously contested, to find an election that had no serious effect on Washington's ability to pass laws." He goes on to argue that the party who controls the Senate is important because of judicial appointments, which may be true but is far too dull to mean anything to the average voter. Plus, those Senate races are only taking place in a few states. And it's not like the elected officials are going to do anything anyway once they get to Washington.
The rest of us live in places where the midterm races aren't all that important. With more young people moving to urban areas where it takes more votes to win, our individual votes matter less in the grand scheme of things, Local elections matter, of course, but with an increasingly transient young population that moves frequently, often out of state, the incentive to install a city official we believe in doesn't feel very strong. Who knows where I'll be in a few years when whatever agenda he or she manages to push through takes effect. And do we really expect that city councilperson will address our needs anyway? I don't.
Finally, I think there's at least some element of steeling ourselves against the inevitable fatigue of the 2016 election. It's coming soon, the nonstop political ads, the partisan bickering, the primary circus followed by an even more overwhelming general presidential election campaign. We are about to be inundated, just barely after recovering from the relentless multi-year fiasco of 2012. I'm not sure I blame anyone for trying to get away and avoid the midterms entirely.
It's not like we couldn't have seen this coming. Voter participation, among the young and old, has been trending downward. Fewer total people voted in 2012 than in 2008 despite the addition of nine million Americans joining the age-eligible ranks. Even more telling, the youth vote fell 10 percent from 2006 to 2010. Neither the 2008 youth bump nor the enthusiasm in general was sustained as Obama's shine wore off. It continues to get worse. You can almost feel the toxicity of Washington at your local polling place. Are we wrong for not performing our civic duty to vote when it's so easy to feel like our leaders aren't doing theirs?
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