During my misspent youth as a GOP political consultant, one of the lessons I learned is that elections are fundamentally a game of amateurs. The average American only votes once every four years (if they bother to vote at all), and every election cycle features news stories of confused voters complaining about the complexity of the process.
The candidates themselves are comparative amateurs, too. I grew up in South Carolina, home of the legendary and long-serving Sen. Strom Thurmond. “Ol’ Strom,” who served in elective office almost non-stop from 1947 until 2001, only ran for office a dozen times — plus his Dixiecrat bid for president of the United States in 1948.
Imagine an auto mechanic who’d only repaired a dozen cars, or a surgeon who’d only operated on a dozen patients?
And yet Barack Obama, considered a skilled politician, was just a three-term state legislator before being elected to the U.S. Senate and, two years later, the White House. The current occupant of the White House had never run for office before.
It’s no wonder, then, that some misconceptions have developed about our election process — myths that are often passed on, unexamined, by pundits and the press. Here are a few:
Americans Don’t Vote Because We Make It Too Hard:
While America’s election participation rate — 56 percent of the voting-age population — is lower than most other developed nations, there’s little evidence that America’s voting laws are the reason. There are suggestions. Yes, it’s true that America doesn’t automatically register every adult to vote the way Sweden and Germany do, but 21 states do have same-day registration.
Opponents of photo ID complain the practice drives down participation, but some of the nations with the highest participation rates, like Denmark and Israel, also require voter IDs. And among the 10 U.S. states with the lowest voter participation, only four (Arkansas, Hawaii, Tennessee and Texas) even request a photo ID. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia require no ID at all.
Mail-In Ballots Increase Participation:
It’s an idea that makes sense on its face. But the available evidence tells a different story. While some states have implemented all-mail voting to address the COVID-19 crisis, only five have elections conducted entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Hawaii also has the lowest voting-age participation (VAP) rate in the country and Utah consistently ranks behind the national average. The other three states have among the highest voter turnout, but they had relatively high participation rates before going to the mail-in system.
Oregon’s example is particularly instructive. According to New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, while his state has a tradition of high voter participation, from 1980 until 1992, the Granite State trailed Oregon in VAP. But in 1996, Oregon began transitioning to all-mail voting and it hasn’t surpassed New Hampshire in turnout since.
“All this money spent, all these national debates, and yet turnout has trended down,” Gardner told InsideSources.
There’s Too Much Money in American Politics:
There’s certainly a lot of money in American government. It’s no coincidence that nine of the richest counties in America are suburbs of Washington, D.C. And 2020 has certainly been a blowout year for campaign cash, with $14 billion in total spending — twice as much as the previous record in 2016.
But it’s also about as much as U.S. telecom companies spend advertising cellular service and cable TV packages. In a typical presidential year, more money is spent promoting beer than boosting political candidates.
Right-Wing “Dark Money” Is Stealing our Democracy:
When people hear the phrase “dark money,” they often think of attack ads against local candidates from outside groups with innocuous-sounding names like “America First Action” or “Priorities USA.” In fact, “dark money” specifically refers to spending by nonprofits who don’t have to disclose their donors.
And while Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) used his time during Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings to rail against the “right-wing” forces corrupting the democratic process, in fact since 2018 Democrats have benefited most. According to Open Secrets, in 2020 “liberal dark money groups have reported spending more than four times the amount of their conservative counterparts with around $66.5 million disclosed to the FEC.”
Your Vote Doesn’t Matter:
Americans who believe their votes don’t matter just have to remember Florida in 2000 when just 537 votes out of six million cast gave George W. Bush the Sunshine State, and the White House.
But if that’s not good enough, consider Democrat Marcus “Landslide” Morton. He won the 1839 Massachusetts gubernatorial election by a single vote. He lost re-election the next year (Massachusetts had annual elections back then) but was re-elected in 1842 — and by a single vote yet again. This time, the vote was cast in the legislature because no candidate won a majority at the polls.
Every vote counts. It’s up to you to cast yours.