As millions of voters prepare to head to the polls next month, a small but growing number of American citizens will abstain from voting altogether in a protest of the current electoral system that is awash in special interest money and manipulated by fallible, some would say “outdated,” electoral college system. Taken together, these limitations erode the democratic process and undermine the ability of third party candidates to have a chance at winning on a national stage.
The boycott movement: Voters not voting
Although the idea is nothing new, the old-fashioned boycott could resonate in a big way this election season, especially with voters who see both major candidates as lackluster and incapable of delivering on the robust promises from the campaign trail.
Playing on the language of America’s founding fathers, “boycotters,” representing a range of political affiliations, have issued a statement laying out the reasons for their discontent with the current state of U.S. elections, writing in their “boycotter’s manifesto,”
“Whereas third parties have no possibility of winning the presidential election due to corporate control over the electoral process and the media, Whereas three decades of solid efforts to reform the electoral process have been subverted by the corporate state, Whereas participation in the electoral process lends legitimacy to a system that has lost its legitimacy, We hereby refuse to vote in the 2012 presidential election.”
Millions of potential voters have already decried the current state of electoral politics, beset oligarchic leanings and awash in special interest money. This was exacerbated following the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that defined corporations and labor unions as “people,” allowing the right to contribute virtually unlimited sums of money to political action committees (PACs) advocating for a particular candidate or party.
This election season has become a record breaking fundraising cycle with the Democratic and Republican National Committees raising more than $1.1 billion for Congressional, Senate and presidential races.
This total does not include the hundreds of millions contributed to semi-secretive super PACs, supported by a handful of wealthy individuals. The “Restore Our Future” PAC, the largest PAC this election season, has already raised more than $82 million on behalf of Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Of the more than $230 million raised by Super PACs this election cycle, over 57 percent came from just 47 individual donors, according to a study by DEMOS, an independent research organization.
More succinctly, Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) believes, “Washington has become an auction house where policies go to the highest bidder.”
There are a number of other factors contributing to a candidate’s electoral success. However, fundraising plays a major role, allowing politicians to finance a multi-pronged approach to reach constituencies, including television and radio ads, social media outreach and campaign literature.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, between 2000 and 2010 the candidate with the highest fundraising totals won in 93 percent of Congressional races and 83 percent of Senate races. Rather than support a system driven by oligarchic and corporate interest, some citizens believe that the best way to signal their discontent is to abstain from voting altogether.
The failures of the electoral collegeThose supporting a boycott have also expressed their disdain for the electoral college, a system that many Americans feel is antiquated and unfairly gives a disproportionate voice to voters in sparsely populated states like Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota, among others.
Nowhere was the fallibility of the electoral college more evident than in the 2000 presidential contest. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) won the plurality of the popular vote but ultimately lost the election to George W. Bush (R-Texas) because Bush surpassed the 270 electoral votes needed to be elected.
In all but two states the “winner take all” rules of the electoral college requires that a candidate capture a majority of the votes in a state in order to secure all of that state’s electors.
Writing about their opposition to the electoral college, authors of the boycott manifesto write, “The Electoral College is obsolete, designed to work in a one-party republic with roughly 4 million citizens; it is open to manipulation and inconsistent with the fundamental American principles of fairness and equality.”
This sentiment is shared by a majority of Americans who would support amending the constitution to create a direct democratic balloting system for presidential elections.
According to a Gallup public opinion poll conducted last year, 63 percent of Americans favor replacing the electoral college with a popular vote. Just 35 percent said that they still supported the electoral college system. Seventy-one percent of Democrats support direct, “one person, one vote elections.” Fifty-three percent of Republicans supported the idea as well.
Low voter turnout muddles the message“… if a huge number of people joined [in the election boycott] it would make an important statement,” declared professor Noam Chomsky, a prominent linguist, academic and activist in an email exchange with boycott supporters earlier this month.
While Chomsky has endorsed Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president, his tacit support for a boycott on a large scale faces a major challenge given already poor voter turnouts in the U.S.
Differentiating the silence of boycott supporters from the hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of disinterested American voters will be challenging in a political climate already tilted decidedly in favor of corporations and wealthy citizens.
Unlike Australia, the U.S. does not have compulsory voting. Even during years with higher turnout, only 50-60 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. The 2008 presidential election, a banner election for voter participation, drew just 63 percent of eligible voters.
Although Barack Obama captured the lion’s share of the more than 131 million votes, the total percentage was lower than the 64.8 percent who cast ballots in the 1960 presidential election. While record numbers of African-Americans and young, college aged voters contributed to Obama’s success in 2008, some project that the turnout in 2012 will be lower than four years ago.
Differentiating the “silence” of an electoral boycott from the silence of millions of passively disaffected American voters will be difficult. However, the electoral boycott has worked previously in other countries, sending a powerful statement of discontent to candidates and elected officials.
For example, in the Jamaican general elections of 1983, the People’s National Party called for an electoral boycott after the ruling Labour Party refused to update the electoral role. The majority of Jamaican voters adhered to the boycott and just 2.7 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, a clear sign of voter discontent with the Labour Party’s decision.
Compared to a large country like the U.S., a grassroots election boycott is much easier to mobilize when the possible electorate is fewer than 3 million. However, if enough voters decide to boycott the flawed electoral system, awash in special interest money and beset by the limitations of electoral college chicanery, then silence might speak louder than votes in 2012.
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