Three reasons US voters are staying home

Obama and Romney have spent a combined $1.6 billion on their campaigns, but the likely state results and a cumbersome voting system could mean over 40 per cent of Americans don't turn up.

Americans finally cast their ballots overnight and both sides can pin their hopes on two words: voter turnout.

In the final few weeks of the campaign, both Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney largely ditched their increasingly indistinguishable visions for the United States for a single plea to their supporters to "get out the vote”.

Between them, Obama and Romney have spent a combined $US1.6 billion encouraging their respective bases to exercise their constitutional right, particularly if they come from the all important swing states.

According to analysis from the Washington Post, the Democrats and Republicans have thrown $400 million in advertising dollars at the voters of Ohio, Virginia and Florida alone.

To put this into perspective, the global advertising budget for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, which netted almost $US1.1 billion worldwide, was estimated at just $150 million.

But that $US1.6 billion reflects just a fraction of the capital in this presidential election cycle.

If you include the money raised up by individual congressmen and senators, as well as the funds collected by private interests, that number is much higher.

The Centre for Responsive Politics recently updated its estimate for the total amount of money raised for 2012 to an unfathomable $US6 billion.

In the wake of the landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court, Citizens United v Federal Election Commission (2010), corporations and unions have been able to raise unfettered piles of cash for political purposes in the name of the First Amendment to the US constitution.

Admittedly the CPR estimate is difficult to validate conclusively. But this gives you an idea of just how much extra capital voters have been dealing without outside the ‘official’ campaigns. It’s been a tremendous stimulus package for the US media.

The central aim of this money on both sides has been to encourage Americans to vote in large numbers. Whoever wins tomorrow, it’s hard to conclude that the vast majority of that money could have been better spent.

Even if Americans come out in the same historically high numbers that were seen in 2008, that will translate into a voter turnout rate of 57 per cent, or about 130 million people.

The intense focus on the crucial swing state of Ohio reveals one of three reasons why so many Americans choose not to vote. The motivation to cast a ballot in the Democratic heartland of New York and California, or the Republican base in Texas, is significantly diminished because they’re always going to one party.

Voters in Australia can understand this mindset. This correspondent’s electorate is the Melbourne seat of Goldstein, currently held by the highly respected Liberal Party figure Andrew Robb AO.

While the left-leaning residents of Goldstein can thank the forces that be that Robb is one of the most honourable members of not just the Liberal Party, but the parliament in general, they’ve got Buckley’s chance of seeing member of the Labor Party take the seat from him. They could be easily forgiven for staying in on election day if Australia didn’t have compulsory voting.

America’s voting system is not compulsory; that’s an infringement on their freedom, the argument goes. Because of this, a campaign in a tight race comes down to the "energy of the base”.

But when you break down the voter turnout rates state-by-state, the variation for these crucial swing states, where votes really do matter, is not so profound. One in three Ohioans didn’t participate in 2008. No one’s expecting the result to be much better this year.

Given that such a large share of those billions of dollars find their way to the TV channels, radio waves, newspapers and, increasingly, websites of these swing states, the turnout rates show that much of it evaporates into thin political air.

A few years after 43rd president of the United States, George Bush, defeated Democratic Senator John Kerry in 2004, the outspoken left-leaning comedian Bill Maher lamented America’s voter turnout rates when compared to France, a country the American right looks down on. Voting isn’t compulsory in France either.

Eighty-five per cent of the ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ turned out in 2007 to give UMP Party leader Nicholas Sarkozy a resounding victory over socialist Segolene Royal.

But Sarkozy v Royal gave France a real choice (he/she, divorced/separated, fiscal conservative/socialist). The second reason Americans don’t vote is something that many Australians can appreciate. They don’t feel like there’s a choice.

Romney’s conservative utterances to win over the Republican base during the primary campaign have given way to a much more centrist agenda in the final weeks of the presidential campaign. Similarly, Obama has been careful not to mention the environment under any circumstances, particularly measures to fight global warming.

What America desperately needs from this election – and it might not get confirmation this evening (US time) – is a clear result.

It didn’t get off to a good start. Fans of The West Wing might remember an episode about the fictional small town of Hartsfield’s Landing in the north-eastern state of New Hampshire.

The premise of the episode is that a small handful of people in this tiny unaffiliated village get to cast their vote just after midnight on the day of the election, before anyone else in the land of the free gets their chance.

The name is pinched from the very real Democratic leaning New Hampshire town of Hart’s Location that does receive this privilege. But the spirit of the storyline is taken from the other town that boasts this quaint tradition, Dixville Notch, also in New Hampshire.

Dixville Notch’s track record at picking the winner is okay. They didn’t like Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton when it mattered.

But in a bad omen for 2012, this is the time the town hasn’t produced a result. It was a tie of five votes apiece for Obama and Romney. That’s right, 10 votes in total for a story that becomes national news.

The closeness of the race leaves the very real possibility that Obama could win the electoral college but not a majority of votes; just like Australia’s current ambassador to the US, Kim Beazley, did in the ALP’s loss to John Howard in 1998. Given the current political climate, it’s not unreasonable to assume that this would prove a much more costly blow to Obama’s mandate than it was for Howard.

What appears most likely – although no one’s counting their chickens yet – is a narrow Obama victory in the electoral college and the popular vote. The Democrats will hold their ground in the Senate, but the Republicans will also maintain control of the House.

That’s what the current arrangement is. In effect no change, despite all those billions of dollars.

If that wasn’t enough motivation to stay at home, the third reason some Americans don’t vote is that sometimes they’re simply joining a queue that never goes anywhere.

Each state runs their own elections and, once again, the US cables have been filled with images of voters lining up for hours – sometimes an entire working day – to do their civic duty.

If Washington can’t get some of the money out of the campaigns, perhaps they can mandate that for every 10 dollars that private interest raises, one dollar from the state of origin has to go to the country’s electoral commissions to make voting more efficient and accessible.

That might give some Americans enough confidence that their vote will actually be counted in 2016 to exercise their right to vote. Whether or not it actually counts, that’s a different matter.

Alexander Liddington-Cox is Business Spectator’s North America Correspondent.

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