Afghanistan’s voting rates put U.S. standards to shame

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It has been known for years that voter turnout in the United States has been disappointing and is decreasing. However, it is hard to know just how bad voter turnout is without a good point of reference. On Saturday, the recently established democratic nation of Afghanistan held elections to determine the new composition of its lower house of parliament, called the Wolesi Jirga, or House of the People. This body consists of 249 members elected directly by the people for terms of five years.

This election was rocked by violence. According to the BBC, the Taliban had warned voters to boycott the polls and “stick to jihad.” The Taliban also threatened that it had “chalked out measures” to “frustrate this American process” and would implement them on election day. Nor were these threats empty. At least 14 people have died during the polling period as of Saturday evening, and more are known to be injured.

Despite the threats from the radical factions still active in Afghanistan, voter turnout was thought Saturday evening to be over 40 percent. Though absolute numbers are not comparable since the United States has a much larger population than Afghanistan, it is still valuable to compare the turnout percentage. The turnout percentage of the last election in the United States was 56.8 percent, according to George Mason University’s United States Election Project. This is the highest it has been since 1968. It is also important to keep in mind that this election was a presidential election. When inspecting elections similar to the Afghan elections — namely U.S. midterm elections for Senate and House seats — the voter turnout in 2006 was an abysmal 37.1 percent. The last time our turnout for elections of this type was higher than Saturday’s Afghan elections was 1970, when 46.6 percent of the voting-age population voted. These statistics are shocking, especially when you note that the 1996 presidential election had a turnout of only 49.1 percent, meaning that less than half of the eligible population voted for the highest office in our country. All of this is in spite of the fact that there has been no systematic oppression of persons attempting to vote since the Jim Crow laws of the early 1900s.

Now, it is valid to note that Afghanistan is a country whose people recently gained the ability to democratically elect leaders. It is less valid, but still noteworthy, to attribute this greater voter turnout to the newness of democratic elections. In order to address this, consider the statistics from the United Kingdom’s previous elections. Since 1945, aggregate voter turnout has never been less than 59.4 percent, a low noted in 2001. In fact, when inspecting turnout by geographical area, the lowest turnout was 56.9 percent in Northern Ireland during the 2010 elections. By contrast, when examining a much smaller period, only 1980–2008, our winner for the most politically apathetic state is Mississippi in 1990 with an appalling turnout of 19.9 percent. The story is similar looking at maximum turnout rates. Wales wins that honor for the UK with a turnout of 84.8 percent in 1950, while Minnesota wins the United States competition with a turnout of 73.9 percent in 2004. In fact, Minnesota also takes second place with 73.1 percent in 2008. Our minimums are much lower, and our maximums are also lower. With Mississippi’s abysmal turnout, one begins to wonder if the population of Mississippi was informed of the elections at all.

The drop in voter turnout in the United States comes at a crucial time, when radical sections of the population are getting increased news coverage and are building momentum toward a major disruption of the national political system. Though our system may not be ideal, the disruption by these radical segments threatens to throw off the balance of American politics. Earlier this month, Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell upset Representative Mike Castle, a member of the House of Representatives since 1993 and a former governor of Delaware, for the Republican Party’s Senate nomination. Fortunately for the collective sanity of the United States government, it is widely believed that she will be unable to win in November. However, her ability to win the primary in the state shows that radical groups like the Tea Party can motivate voters to the polls in numbers that threaten incumbent favorites in races they largely expect to win. As long as voter turnout remains so low in midterm and even presidential elections, radical groups can feed off voter apathy and grow in their political power.