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Nadworny: Democracy By The Numbers

Jens O. Z. Ehrs for Southerly Clubs
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Ballots for Swedish national election await voters at Södra Latin School in Stockholm, Sweden."

This November's midterm elections have energized a lot of people. But it’s a fact that midterm elections are generally not very popular. According to the United States election project, the 2014 election had an underwhelming voter turnout of just 36%. The highest midterm participation rate in the 20th century was way back in 1966 and even then, less than 49% of eligible Americans voted.

Presidential elections are typically a bit better - in 2016 we had a relatively high 60% participation rate.

Last year my family and I lived in Sweden, where it’s also an election year - for Parliament. In 2002 the Swedes saw a serious dip in their voter participation rate and they’ve been working hard to get it back up.

To be more precise, in the 1970s, 90% of Swedish adults voted. Then in 2002, that rate dropped to about 80% and the Swedes decided they needed to do something about it. It’s back to about 85% in the last election, but apparently that’s just not good enough.

Let me add that in Sweden, if you’re a legal resident as soon as you turn 18 you’re automatically registered to vote. You don’t have a choice; you’re registered.

And voting is much simpler. If you’re not among the many who vote by mail, you come to a voting station, show your state ID, which every single Swede has from the government, and you choose a party, represented by different colored paper, stick the paper in an envelope and you’re done.

By comparison, in our democracy it’s not always easy just to register to vote – never mind that our ballots are complex and confusing.

The analytical and data-driven Swedes consider it a problem that only 75% of immigrants vote, and in some immigrant-heavy areas the voting rate is only between 40 and 50%. So the Swedes have started to focus more energy on inclusivity programs in those areas and actively recruit more immigrants to run for office. They’ve set a goal for having new Swedes vote at the same rate as native Swedes.

I wonder what our government would look like if we set a clear goal of encouraging everyone to vote, of making the voting process simpler and hassle free, and of not letting up the pressure until 80% of all American adults voted.

I'd be pretty happy if we had that goal just in Vermont, to start.

Rich Nadworny is a designer who resides in Burlington and Stockholm.
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