The American voters are choosing to abstain from voting more than ever. At the latest election, the midterm elections in 2014, the voter turnout was a little over 36%. In other words, almost two-thirds of those eligible to vote, stayed home on Election Day. As it can be seen in the graph below, it is the lowest voter turnout since the election in 1942 during World War II. As this site is focusing on Money in Politics and lobbying activities, the primary focus of this piece is on Congress. The reason for this focus is that most lobbying activities are connected to the legislative branch, as described in this piece.
However, the record-low turnout at the latest election must be compared to that of other democracies that the US is usually comparable with. Hence, if the US is in the top, when it comes to voter turnout, it might just be a general trend. Yet, a study from 2002 places the voter turnout in the US as 120th in the world, between the Dominican Republic and Benin. Although, the study is from 2002, the midterm elections voter turnout was lower in 2014 than in 2002, as it can be seen in the graph above. Thus, it seems logical to conclude that the US still ranks poorly, when it comes to voter turnouts in comparison with the rest of the world.
The low voter turnout constitutes a problem for the US’ democracy, as political participation, in the form of voting, is crucial to any democracy. It could be suggested that the explanation for this low voter turnout is, in part, due to lobbying activities and money in politics, in general. In other words, the impact of certain lobbying activities has affected the democratic process in the US. In relation to this, it should be noted that the approval rating for Congress is at a record-low as well. Arguably, the two, the low voter turnout and the low approval rating, are connected. However, previous numbers have suggested that the two has a contrasting relationship, meaning that when Congress’ approval rating is low, more people turn up to vote. Yet, this theory did not prove valid during the 2014 midterm elections for which both approval rating and voter turnout were record-low. With both Congress’ job approval and the midterm elections’ voter turnout at a historically low simultaneously, it seems safe to assume that many American choose not to vote because they lack faith in Congress. Furthermore, a majority of the American public wants to reform and limit campaign financing, according to a Gallup poll. Yet, as described in the Why Lobbying is Allowed pieces, the Supreme Court and Congress have both been unable to effectively reform or limit this. Even on state level, when legislation to reform the way elections are funded is finally made, it has been struck down or revoked by the courts, which has been the case in Vermont and Wisconsin, for instance. On top of this, Congress seems unwilling to close the revolving door effectively, in order to be able to attract the best candidates.
With the approval rating for Congress at a record low and the voter turnout in the US’ elections is historically low, too, it seems safe to assume that the American representatives’ unpopularity and the increase in Americans who stay home on Election Day are connected. In other words, the public’s lack of faith in the legislative system has caused apathy for some voters, i.e., the low approval rating has caused low voter turnout. Moreover, the approval rating for Congress is not just low; in fact, it is close to its lowest point ever. As it can be seen in the graph below, fewer than 15% of the American public approve of Congress’ job, which means that more than 5 out of 6 voters disapprove of the job Congress is doing. But is this due to lobbying activities and money in politics? In the next paragraphs, three aspects of lobbying, which might have contributed to the low approval rating of congress and in turn the low voter turnout, will be presented and later evaluated along with other possible reasons.
Arguably, one of the biggest factors, as to why the American voters have lost faith in Congress, is the influx of “soft money” from corporations and interest groups into the political and electoral system. As previously mentioned, the effects of the Permanent Campaign, which are caused by the increased cost of and spending on electoral campaigns, have opened the gates wide into American politics for outside interests and their money. This dependency on money from interests, which might not accurately represent the public’s interest, may not be quid pro quo corruption, in the eyes of the voters. However, it could still be perceived as a kind of dependency corruption by the public. For instance, resourceful interest groups may sway a Member of Congress towards their interests, because that member/candidate knows he or she is dependent on their continued support. Consequently, this could leave some voters with the feeling that the Members of Congress listen more and spend more time attending to special interests, rather than to public interest. It should be noted, that the study on the 98 issues in congress, concluded that many of these outside interests and their activities, involving spending money on campaigns, supports the political status quo in Congress. In a poll from 2012, more than 80% of the surveyed said that the current campaign spending rules, which allows this influx of “soft money” into American politics, is “bad for democracy.” Additionally, according to a Gallup poll, the majority of Americans wants to reform and limit campaign financing, as mentioned earlier. These polls suggest that the Americans are discontent with its politicians’ dependency on outside money, which, arguably, causes them to distrust and disapprove of their job and, possibly, not vote.
Another factor, which diminishes voters’ trust in Congress, is the many negative ads or attack ads that are used against opposing candidates. Such ads are a popular method for outside interests to damage the opposing candidate’s campaign by using PAC money. However, in many cases either side is willing to increase spending, and the same goes for willingness to “throw mud” at the other candidate. A prime example of this is from the 2014 midterm elections, where the Democrat Kay Hagan was running against Republican challenger Thom Tillis for one of the two North Carolina seats in the Senate. Over $100 million were spend on the two candidates’ campaigns and more than 100.000 TV ads were aired during a race, which the underdog Tillis, surprisingly, won. However, these two candidates’ particular campaigns also received national attention before the winner was found; this was due to the record numbers of negative ads that were used. These negative ads, often paid by with “soft money,” does not just hurt the candidate who losses, in this particular case, Kay Hagan, they also provide the public with a negative image of the winner. Thom Tillis won the Senate seat, in spite of the many negative ads against him. However, these ads will still have hurt his credibility and public image, which means that even before entering office, the new Senator from North Carolina is, arguably, less popular, in the eyes of the public, than he would have been if he had won an election without that many negative ads.
The third aspect, as to why Congress’ job approval rating is so low, seems to stem from the type of politicians the system creates. First, there is the revolving door; this refers to metaphorical door in Washington between Capitol Hill, where Congress resides, and K Street, where the lobbyists have their offices. Moreover, it refers to the many former lobbyists that are employed in politics and the many politicians that become lobbyists. This means that many of the Members of Congress’ aides have been involved with lobbying for interest groups and, furthermore, many former Members of Congress eventually become lobbyists. In the eyes of the public, this would suggest closer ties between Congress and the lobbying industry. Additionally, it seems to suggest that many Congressional Members are interested in the financial benefits, which a pay raise on K Street offers. In fact, partially because of the raising campaign costs, many of the candidates who run for Congress are rich. In fact, 245 out of the 535 members of Congress are millionaires. This leaves the public with the image of its Congress that is entangled with the lobbying industry, while it is full of wealthy individuals and those who wants to get rich as a lobbyist after their term is over.
However, there are also other aspects, not connected with lobbying or money in politics, which could contribute to the low approval rating and voter turnout. The first of which explains the low voter turnout with the two-party system the US has. Arguably, two factors of this system might cause less Americans to vote. First, in many races between two candidates from each party, there is a clear favorite and it is traditionally a candidate from the same party who wins. Thus, in these races, voting for either candidate provides less incentive, as there are only two options and the result is almost given in advance. Secondly, a majority of the Americans say that neither the Democrats nor the Republican Party represent them, according to a poll from 2014, as can be seen in chart below. Hence, as those two parties are the only major parties, many among this majority might abstain from voting, as they feel neither of the parties represent their interests. However, although this seems valid, it might only explain why the voter turnout in the US is low in general compared to other countries and not why it is record low, currently, since the two-party system has been constantly present. Contrastingly, the lobbying activities have increased in scale and scope the last decades, posing a more reasonable explanation for the current record-low numbers.
Another reason, the gridlock in Congress, can also attempt to explain the more current change. The gridlock in Congress, which have meant that the legislative branch has not accomplished much in recent years, due to bickering and the lack of compromise and bipartisanship, has certainly also contributed to the lowering of the approval rating. Furthermore, an open-ended Gallup poll indicates that gridlock in Congress is the number one reason Americans are critical of Congress. Almost 60% proclaims that Congress’ ineffectiveness and partisan gridlock is the main cause of their disapproval, as shown in the chart below. Thus, it seems that the gridlock in Congress is what contributes the most to the unpopular Congress and in turn to the lower voter turnout for the midterm elections. This suggests that the hypothesis, which explains the phenomenon of lower voter turnout with gridlock in Congress, is valid.
In the same poll, only 1% state that Congress “cater to special interests/big business” as their reason behind disapproving Congress, under the category “performance on issue,” in the chart above. This suggests that the explanation claiming lobbying activities contributed to the phenomenon, seems to have contributed lesser than the gridlock explanation. However, a couple of features might have caused the vast difference between lobbying activities and gridlock in the poll. First, it is important to remember it was an open-ended poll, which means that the respondents had to provide their own answers, thus, they did get to choose from a list of answer choices. This type of questionnaire would promote the apparent reasons, such as Congress not getting anything done, and diminish underlying reasons, such as lobbying activities. Furthermore, it seems the public have become used to these activities, since no reform has effectively changed the system. Secondly, the lobbying activities, such as the “catering to special interests/big business,” in many cases includes keeping the status quo, i.e., to prevent policy change. Thus, lobbying activities are the underlying cause of, at least, some of the gridlock in Congress.
Consequently, it seems that the hypothesis, which explains the phenomenon of low voter turnout with gridlock in Congress, is valid. However, the explanation that money in politics have contributed to the lower voter turnout seems valid too, although, its contribution seems less significant. In other words, money in US politics is not the sole reason as to why less and less Americans are turning out to vote. However, it seems that lobbying activities, soft money, etc. are contributing to this democratic problem in the Unites States.
- Alter, C. (2014, November 10). Voter Turnout in Midterm Elections Hits 72-Year Low. Time Magazine.
- Baumgartner, F. R., Berry, J. M., Hojnacki, M., Kimball, D. C. & Leech, B. L. (2009). Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why. The United States of America: The University of Chicago Press.
- Blake, A. (2014, May 29). Gridlock in Congress? It’s probably even worse than you think. The Washington Post.
- Condon, S. (2012, March 27). Why is Congress a millionaires club? CBS News.
- Jones, J. M. (2014, August 25). Disapproval of Congress Linked to Higher Voter Turnout. Gallup.
- Kaiser, R. G. (2010). So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government. The United States: Vintage Books.
- Lane, C. (2006, June 27). Justices Rejects Vermont’s Campaign Finance Law. The Washington Post.
- Lessig, L. (2011). Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It. New York, the United States of America: Hachette Book Group.
- Levinthal, D. (2014, October 13). North Carolina’s state of political hate. The Center for Public Integrity.
- Lueders, B. (2011, June 30). Campaign financing dead in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Watch.
- The New York Times (2014, November 11). The Worst Voter Turnout in 72 Years. The New York Times.
- Open Secrets (n.d.). Revolving Door, Former Members. Open Secrets: Center for Responsive Politics.
- Pilkington, E. (2014, November 5). North Carolina senator Kay Hagan suffers shock defeat to Republican challenger. The Guardian.
- Pintor, R. L., Gratschew, M & Sullivan K. (2002). Voter Turnout Since 1945: A Global Report. Pp 75-116. The United States: International IDEA
- Rasmussen Reports (2014, April 24). 53% Think Neither Political Party Represent the American People. Rasmussen Reports.
- Riffkin, R. (2014, December 15). 2014 U.S. Approval of Congress Remains Near All-Rime Low. Gallup.
- Saad, L. (2013 a, June 12). Gridlock is Top Reason American Are Critical of Congress. Gallup.
- Saad, L. (2013 b, June 24). Half in U.S. Supports Publicly Financed Federal Campaigns. Gallup.
- Schouten, F. (2015, April 13). Ex-lawmakers swing through the revolving door. USA Today.
- Yager, J. (2012, October 25). Poll: Majority wants corporate money out of politics. The Hill.
(Photo credit: Wikimedia)