My Turn: Election turnout offers a glimmer of hope

However you viewed the presidential contest  there is one particularly interesting feature to the polling: the 2020 electorate reportedly was the most ethnically and racially diverse in U.S. history.

In some quarters, that is cause for alarm. In other circles, it is reason for optimism that groups who have been marginalized in the past are asserting their representative rights in numbers not seen before.

The Pew Research Center earlier this year published a report stating that nearly one-in-three voters (31 percent) on Election Day will be Hispanic, black, Asian or another racial or ethnic minority.

According to ongoing tallies, more than 156 million Americans voted in the 2020 presidential election, a figure that is expected to grow in the coming weeks as more results are reported. The final vote tally is projected to be more than 20 million higher than the 2016 record of 137 million votes counted.

This year’s turnout is estimated to be some 66.5 percent of eligible voters, reportedly the highest since 1900, when President William McKinley won re-election over William Jennings Bryan in a rematch of the 1896 race.

While the numbers are trending upward, they still raise important questions about the nature of “government by the people.”

The supposed hero of the democratic system is the voter, commonly described as the ultimate source of all authority. The fact that tens of millions of Americans are so unresponsive to the system that they do not vote is the single most remarkable fact about it.

People apparently do not participate because they feel the system holds no benefits for them, or are generally apathetic about politics and political issues. Perhaps even more distressing is the fact that Americans are as a lot poorly informed. A recent survey showed that only 20 percent of the people polled could name the last three vice presidents of the United States, beginning with the current VP Mike Pence. The results were even worse when the topics strayed to international personalities, a fact brought to light most recently by one of the presidential candidates.

Some scholars have argued with conviction that apathy is no real cause for concern, and that too much political participation may actually pose dangers to democracy. Most political observers will grant that complete political participation cannot be achieved in any society, nor is it necessary in order for democracy to function. But for a political system to be democratic, the number of players in the game cannot be limited except by individual choice.

In America, public opinion can be a controlling force, especially at the state and local level. One of the primary responsibilities of citizenship is to exercise the rights protected by the Constitution, including that of free speech and dissent.

Activists who work for a cleaner environment, support tax reform, or oppose development near a historic site, make tangible contributions to society, whatever the merits of their cause. When individuals speak out at the polls, whether in support or dissent, they fulfill an obligation of citizenship, one that all too often is buried in passive indifference.

Let’s hope that the 2020 vote count is a game-changing moment, that solidifies representative democracy for years to come.