Opinion: We must dramatically increase voter turnout

Given the bitter and divisive nature of the recent presidential campaign, it is hardly surprising that its aftermath is filled with acrimonious and bitter recriminations. But one large group of critically important Americans has remained relatively unnoticed and unscathed in what promises to be an ongoing bitter political and ideological war.

That group is the 93 million eligible voters who did not vote.

In rounded numbers, there are 220 million eligible voters in the United States. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump each received 60 million. Third party, write-ins and other presidential candidates received 7 million. So simple math tells us that 93 million, more than 40 percent, did not cast a ballot.

To put this number in perspective, turnout for this year’s presidential election year was in the average range for the last fifty years. We bounce around between 50 percent and 60 percent. But our consistency is not a sign of excellence. The simple fact is that Americans are not politically engaged when compared with other countries. Of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 35 developed countries, 27 have higher voter percentages than the United States, led by Belgium’s almost 90 percent.

Why is turnout so poor?

While it is too early to have research on this year’s nonvoters, we do have indicators as to reasons. After the 2014 midterm elections, this same group was asked for the top reason they abstained from the process: 28 percent were too busy, 16 percent were not interested, 11 percent were ill or disabled, 10 percent were out of town, 8 percent each forgot or disliked the candidates, 2 percent each had registration problems or transportation issues or poor weather, and the remainder had other reasons or refused to answer the question.

The problem here is that democracy is based on active participation by its citizens. When almost half the population does not vote, we have clear evidence of a major problem. And unfortunately, since this problem has been with us for decades, the nation bears a heavy burden of shame for not paying attention to the continued scourges of poverty, unemployment, unequal income distribution, and the belief that rules are unevenly applied.

With the specter of a nation splitting apart, our future depends on involving those 93 million.

Until election day, the political pundits were saying that the Republicans were going to be forced to rethink their party’s future. It now appears it is the Democrats who face this problem. And while we can be sure that political strategists are already examining how to better their party’s position, neither has an interest in increasing voter turnout unless it benefits their interests.

The burden on spreading our democracy to everyone does not lie with our many levels of government. They are too vested in their own interests. It lies with each of us, working through our places of employment, worship, community organizations, and social networks. It will rely not on trying to convince people that our ideas are better or worth supporting. It will rely on spreading the word that every voice counts and has merit.

The effort is in each of our hands to win or lose.

While it is impossible to tell the outcome had the turnout been higher, this is not a partisan issue. Successful democracies depend on citizen involvement and interest. A 58 percent turnout rate is disappointing and it is important for all of us that we work to dramatically increase the number by 2020.

— Budig is past president/chancellor of three state universities and baseball’s American League. Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.