League of Women Voters

All for democracy and democracy for all?


In 2019, the Knight Foundation set out to understand why nearly 100 million eligible voters sit out one of the “central democratic acts” for people in the United States — casting a ballot. Their study revealed five key findings, one of which is that disengaged voters have less faith in the electoral system than voters — they don’t like the candidates and they don’t think their vote matters.

This sentiment may not surprise you. It showed up in a local column on June 24, and it’s dinner table discussion for many.

The Knight Foundation, which focuses its work in communities where the Knight brothers, John S. and James L., once published newspapers mostly focuses its work on improving those communities. But civic engagement remains one of their points of interest.

Their study also found that if all the non-voters had shown up in 2020, they’d have split their votes — 33% voting Democrat, 30% voting Republican and 18% voting for a third party. They were closely divided on the Republican candidate, and while they skewed left on healthcare, they are more conservative on immigration and abortion issues.

The study also found that non-voters are less likely to read a column like this. Or any news for that matter. What they know about current events comes from “bumping into the news.” It’s reminiscent of late-night TV in the 1990’s where “the man on the street” bits put a microphone in the face of Americans who couldn’t name key players in national events, including the president and vice president, among others.

How did we get to a point where so many Americans tune out? What does it say about faith in “a government by the people, for the people,” a.k.a. democracy?

There’s a multitude of reasons many Americans have thrown up their hands. Could it be because they live in a district or state hopelessly gerrymandered or dominated by one party, or because it seems politicians and parties serve their own best interests, ignoring messages that their constituents have views contrary to the party line? Or maybe they’re skeptical about career politicians, and feel there’s a “tyranny of the minority,” as Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky argue in their book of the same name.

To be sure, there are some who posit that we do not and should not live in a democracy in which majority rule prevails. Drawing on Aristotle, they argue that the majority cannot be trusted; hence the need for a republic in which representatives serve as intermediaries that protect the country from the hoi polloi (Greek for “the many”). In this view, people who don’t vote, and many others, shouldn’t vote - and perhaps even shouldn’t have the right to vote - because they aren’t sufficiently educated and informed.

In contrast, Ziblatt and Levitsky hold that democrac[SG1] y is the most effective system that humans have thus far enacted against oppression. But, they argue, democracy reflects the culture and lives of humans, requiring maintenance and adjustment.

In their book The Tyranny of the Majority, Ziblatt and Levitsky address the way in which democracy has evolved around the world, sometimes degenerating to exclude the will of the majority, sometimes maturing to respond to the challenges of balancing the rights of the minority with the will of the majority.

It’s a tension that exists because it represents flesh and blood humans who invent new technologies and institutions, from corporations to national healthcare systems to education districts. There’s an uncomfortable but necessary dynamism, as citizens adopt these new systems and must realize self-governance in synergy with new tools and evolving communities. The people living in and with these systems experience their consequences and outcomes, and if something doesn’t work, their voices and perspectives are critical to ensuring regulations, procedures and laws adapt to protect and improve them.

It seems incongruous to believe that freedom for all requires that some citizen’s perspectives be discounted or distrusted on the basis that they lack intellectual, economic or moral credentials. Such a position is both exclusive and presumptive. It depersonalizes and disrespects and it creates a shifty, uncertain foundation. Who’s in? Who’s out? Who decides?

Every citizen should have the right, indeed the responsibility, of voting with as few barriers as possible. A democratic system requires extraordinary faith. We are called to trust others are doing the work, even if they approach it differently. It requires us to tolerate differences, the self-awareness that humans come at the world with different ways of thinking and to honor reasonable differences about the way the world works.

Ziblatt and Levitsky lay out a case on the dangers of a small group of politically minded people having a mismatched advantage that they leverage against the majority. The minority here is not an ethnic or racial minority, but one with a political identity. Such a group finds itself unified by one aim: to preserve the narrative and way of living that they idealize. While they justify name-calling, canceling, gerrymandering, and every other tactic to maintain their dominance, they seem blind to the notion that they are squelching the engagement of fellow citizens. It’s as if they believe that the apathetic, disengaged citizen is just a natural class, not one who can be transformed when they have the confidence their vote matters.


The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.