After Melania Trump’s infamous jacket, one of the latest political fashion statements on the American market is Gerrymander Jewelry—a new company whose commercial made the rounds on social media because it seemed more like an SNL skit than a real advertisement. For $195, you can buy a gold pin or necklace with a pendant shaped like one of six ridiculously gerrymandered districts. There’s TX-35, which in real life runs 100 miles long from Austin to San Antonio; in wearable, miniature form, the thin metal looks easy enough to snap in half. This district is shaped, Gerrymander Jewelry suggests, “for no other reason than to pack Democrats into one district.” There’s also NC-6, a district drawn so that the campus of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical college—one of the ten largest Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the U.S.—is split down the middle. If a student were to move from the East to the West side of campus, they would have to vote in a different district.
The tongue-in-cheek project (which benefits Democratic candidates in local swing state elections via OMG WTF) gets at just one of the deeper issues that have disillusioned voting-age Americans to the point that an unimpressive 55.7 percent of them voted in the 2016 presidential election. Voter turnout is worse in state and local elections; while nearly 92 million eligible Americans didn’t vote in 2016, an estimated 143 million didn’t vote in the 2014 midterms.
Among its 32 mostly democratic peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. placed 26th in Voting-Age Population (VAP) turnout. Meanwhile, countries like Belgium and Australia lead the VAP turnout pack, ranking 1st and 4th, respectively. Both countries enforce compulsory voting. However, they’re the only countries in the top ten who do—so countries like Sweden, Denmark, and South Korea can clearly encourage voters to get to the polls without compulsory voting laws.
A 2017 Pew study asked registered voters who didn’t vote in the 2016 election why they refrained. The most common response, which resonated with 25 percent of respondents, was “didn’t like candidate or campaign issues.” 15 percent of respondents “felt their vote didn’t matter”—the second most popular response.
Chalking up low voter turnout to stereotypical American laziness or millennial ignorance is inaccurate and doesn’t address the deeper issues that plague American politics. Many voters simply feel that their vote doesn’t matter, like those who live in strategically gerrymandered congressional districts with arbitrary borders designed to marginalize one party and favor the other. Democrats who felt sure of Hillary Clinton’s success are still reeling from her loss to the “silent majority” who elected Donald Trump.
Even if they don’t or can’t agree on much, Republicans in California and Democrats in Alabama likely feel that their votes are equally useless in states that always go red or blue. Independent voters are similarly, if not more, underrepresented. The last independent candidate to take an electoral vote was former Governor of Alabama George Wallace in 1968. Those who voted for third party candidates in the 2016 presidential election received their share of ridicule after the unexpected results, as were those who voted for Ralph Nader of the Green Party in 2000.
Claire Fleming, ’20 is familiar with the pros and cons of being an unaffiliated voter. Though she feels empowered and freer to choose candidates based on individual agendas and viewpoints, she also notes “a sense of hopelessness.”
“When people tell me, ‘The ideals of independent voting make sense, but to vote for a minority party is to throw away your vote,’ it sounds contradictory and truth-shaming,” Fleming said. “Is the purpose of voting not to voice what resonates most with your beliefs?”
Fleming thinks that the increasingly polarized two-party system “may just end one of the longest-lasting democracies in existence.” (Politifact rates the claim that the U.S. is the oldest democracy in the world—once made by Paul Ryan—as true.)
“The many popular beliefs on how issue stances can be combined are too various to be constrained to just left and right,” Fleming said. “We need minority parties to have the resources and opportunities currently taken for granted by our large parties in order to better serve the needs of our people.”
Though Fleming is from Michigan, which was a swing state in the 2016 election, she votes according to where she presently lives “because it is easier to talk about and understand local candidates when I am physically immersed in the local community they will be impacting.”
While some students like Fleming feel that their vote matters more when voting where they currently live, some students studying abroad or in other states feel connected to where they’re from.
Anna Noman, ’20 registered to vote absentee for the local elections during her fall semester in D.C. with the Hendrix-in-Washington program. “Being in D.C.,” Norman said, “has made me hyper aware of the importance of our governing bodies acting as a representation of its citizens. Though it’s really easy to put off sending in an absentee application, I knew I would regret it if I didn’t do my part to make sure our politicians are doing best by all Arkansans.”
When asked how she feels about being a registered Democrat in a consistently Republican state and district, Norman remained optimistic about her party’s success., “If every Democrat doesn’t vote because they think a red Arkansas is inevitable, then change is never going to happen.”
With midterm elections just days away, we’ll soon find out just how much change is possible.