In the past few years, members of differing political ideologies have struggled to agree on even the most routine policy and legislative issues. Ask any politician or virtually any pundit though, and regardless of their place on the philosophical spectrum you’ll find one view in common: America is, was, and will be the leader of the free world, a bastion of democracy with a population protective of and thankful for its freedom to choose its leaders. Maybe public figures don’t all believe it; after all, politicians need votes and pundits need ratings. Still, at least in this country, the message is pervasive enough that you probably feel it too. Hear ‘democracy’ and you won’t think of Australia or France; chances are you’ll think of the U.S.A.
Behind all the flowery rhetoric, though, lies a fairly disappointing truth. The United States citizenry has, at best, a mediocre voter turnout rate, lagging behind:
Australia, Malta, Chile, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, Iceland, New Zealand, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Greece, Venezuela, the Czech Republic, Brazil, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, Norway, Romania, Bulgaria, Israel, Portugal, Finland, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Ireland, Spain, Japan, Estonia, Hungary, Russia and India.
The United States ties Switzerland for voter turnout in presidential elections with approximately 55 to 60 percent voting. During midterm elections, voter turnout can drop below 30 percent in some states.
The picture is, admittedly, more complicated than the one I described. Some nations, like Australia, have compulsory voting, which arguably obscures who votes out of genuine passion and who simply fills in the bubbles A, B, A, B. The list above also doesn’t factor in election transparency which, except for very rare cases, is unquestioned in this country. America does still rank as one of the top nations in terms of overall political environment, but even there, Newsweek puts it in 14th place, sandwiched between Belgium and Ireland.
Given our self-proclaimed role as a paragon of democracy, such revelations are humbling, especially when compared to democratic awakenings in generally disregarded nations. Last week, an estimated 40 percent of eligible Afghanis voted in their nation’s parliamentary elections, a percentage higher than in many American states during midterm years. That’s an impressive statistic for a nation with a far-flung population and relatively little transportation infrastructure. Furthermore, Afghani voters risk being shot, beheaded, blown apart, or otherwise dismembered for participating in the democratic process—not exactly an issue in the United States.
My goal here is not to bash American patriotism, nor do I take any sense of smug contempt when I hear public officials give obligatory, pandering praise to the American voter (okay, maybe a little). However, if we as a nation congratulate ourselves on our strong tradition of civilian participation in electing our leaders, fairness dictates that we give equal, if not far greater, deference to those nations whose actions put our claims to shame. It’s easy to write speeches extolling the virtues of freedom-loving citizens. It’ll cost you about $1.25 to buy an American flag lapel pin. It’s harder, potentially far costlier, and much more significant to decide to vote knowing full well that the ink stain puts your finger at risk for amputation—or worse.
Many Americans, or at least some very vocal ones, view the people of Afghanistan with the suspicion that comes from peering out behind the imposing ramparts of our familiar culture. Others think of them with equal parts pity and apathy. It isn’t often that stories of such resilience filter through to a majority of Western ears, but such stories are worth remembering. Yes, there were reports of fraud, but that’s an issue with the logistics, not with the people. When I vote in November, I won’t have death threats hanging over my head, and if I did, I honestly can’t say whether I’d head to the polls. America might still be the Land of the Free, but the world’s got a new contender for “Home of the Brave.”