T. Bryer: Citizenship does not end with the Vote

Thomas A. Bryer

According to European Social Survey (ECC), Lithuania is among the countries with a very low voter turnout at national elections: only 53.2% of respondents said they voted in 2014–2016 (the average for European Union is 68%). On the other hand, low voter turnout is specific also to such countries as France (63.3%) and the US
“Turnout in the United States is lower than in many established democracies: On average, 60% of eligible voters participate in national elections, and 40% participate in elections for our national legislature when there is not an election for president”, says Bryer.

According to him, there are two main reasons why people vote: when they feel they have, first, a stake in the outcome of the election, and second, power to make a difference in the election.

Some 53,2% of Lithuanians voted in the last elections. It is the lowest percentage among countries participating in the ECC. How many Americans vote? Does it change year by year?

Voter turnout changes year by year in the United States. On average, 60% of eligible voters participate in national elections, and 40% participate in elections for our national legislature when there is not an election for president.

Turnout for local elections, such as city council, is often times lower in much of the country. Turnout in the United States is lower than in many established democracies.

Young people in Lithuania are the least interested in elections. Why is it so?

In the United States, during the last presidential election, 45% of young people (aged 18–29) voted. In the next election in 2014 (when there was not a presidential election), only about 20% voted. According to a HuffPost/YouGov survey, nearly 60% of young Americans feel only people who are well informed should vote, and voters in this demographic seem to hold themselves to this standard. If not informed about the issues or the candidates, they choose to not vote.

Low turnout among young people is thus not unique to Lithuania, but the reason why might be different. Perhaps it is apathy, or a feeling of powerlessness (that the vote does not matter), or a feeling that elected officials are not responsive, regardless of who they are.

Voting, however, is only one form of participation that allows citizens, of any age, to have an influence on their community and country. We must also look at and ask why more young people are not volunteering, for instance.

What are the means to motivate young people to vote? What are the means of making politics interesting to them?

Citizens vote when they feel they have, first, a stake in the outcome of the election, and second, power to make a difference in the election. Unless these two conditions are met, it will not be possible to motivate young people to vote.

How to make politics interesting to young people? I think the question should be different: how to prepare young people for politics? Answers to the first question might include such things as the use of social media, appealing to issues of concern, creating message and communication strategies that align with the quick media world of young people, and so on. These might work, but they are solutions that effectively change politics to fit the person, rather than changing the person to fit politics. Politics is not a game; it is a serious business. I am troubled by the heavy use of Twitter in the US presidential election; it may engage more young voters, but it simplifies a complex process.

Nearly 60% of young people feel someone who is not informed should not vote. I applaud this attitude. There is recognition that politics is a serious business and must be taken seriously. I will always be less concerned about low voter turnout than high turnout with poorly informed voters.
As educational leaders, we must do a better job preparing young people to participate in all forms of politics. Through that preparation, we can empower, and through that empowerment, we can motivate not for “simple” politics but a politics that is a privilege for concerned individuals who are concerned for the future of their community and country.

Often people say that it does not matter who is in the government, the decisions they take are always based on their personal interests. “Common people” just adapt to everything. What would be your answer to them?

This is a common opinion. In many situations, a single elected official will not be able to change a community, a city, or a country in any dramatic way. The bureaucracy will prevent major change, and citizens, if active between elections, can prevent dramatic change.

That said, elected officials do matter. They define the “tone,” they have ability and authority to allocate scarce resources across a community, and they can end or start new programs that benefit or harm different groups of people. Who is in office matters. We all must adapt; elections will help determine whether we are adapting in a way that further supports our collective interests or if we must adapt in a way that only benefits a few.

People often say: there is no one to vote for, therefore we will skip this time. What would be your advice to them?

First, I would ask what does it mean that there is no one to vote for. Does not candidate represent your interests? If the answer is “yes,” then my second statement will be: “In the next election, you must run for office yourself, or recruit someone who you like to run for office. If there is truly no candidate that is better than any other candidate, skip the vote. However, commit to participating in other ways after the election, and get ready for the next election when your name is on the ballot.”

It is important, regardless of election outcomes, to participate in society in other ways: volunteer, attend government meetings, write to elected officials advocating for better policies and programs. The act of the citizen does not start with the vote, and it does not end with the vote. We are citizens every day.

What is a good candidate? To what essential qualities, or biographical facts, or career achievements should we pay attention while voting?

There is no such thing as a good candidate across time and place. Even in a single location, the needs of Kaunas City might require someone with business background today but someone with experience in social services or as a citizen activist in the future.

That said, I suggest we seek candidates and recruit candidates who maintain certain ethical standards and practices: honesty, integrity, transparency, openness to participation with citizens, collaborator, and humbleness. A candidate must know when he or she is wrong and be willing to correct, and a candidate must know that no achievement, no matter how great, was possible without help from other people.

I firmly believe as well that individuals who are accused of or guilty of scandal or abuse of office should end their career in politics. Citizen trust in government is already very low; if an individual is truly interested in public service, they must know when it is time to put their own ambition aside and let another equally capable citizen have an opportunity to lead. Around the world, including especially the United States, we have many individuals who violate the trust of the people and still try to remain active in politics. It is these individuals who are most threatening to democratic well-being, as they clearly put self above community, city, and country.

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