What would you be willing to risk in order to vote? Would you cast a ballot if it meant your finger might be cut off? Would you head to the polls if there were a credible threat that terrorists were going to blow up your polling station? Would you even leave your house on Election Day if terrorists threatened to kill people who voted?
I doubt I would risk that much. But those were the dangers the people of Afghanistan faced as they went to the polls Saturday to determine who would succeed President Hamid Karzai.
What do you think the voter turnout was in Saturday’s election in Afghanistan? But before you answer, let me give you a bit more information about what the Afghan people endured in the run-up to the vote.
The Taliban ordered 39 suicide bombings in the two months leading up to the election. The Taliban also circulated letters warning Afghans that if they voted, they could have a finger chopped off or even be killed.
Just three days before the election, a Taliban suicide bomber killed seven people. And on Tuesday, a candidate for a provincial office and nine of his supporters were kidnapped and killed by the Taliban.
Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent and CEO of The Soufan Group, called the Taliban’s actions a concerted effort to derail the elections. And in case you think the media were exaggerating the threats against the Afghan people, a U.S. Army officer who recently returned from Afghanistan told me, “The people out there are scared as hell of the Taliban.”
So now, keeping all that in mind, how many Afghans do you think risked life and limb to cast their ballot? Keep in mind that in our 2012 presidential election, we had a 58 percent voter turnout.
Early estimates are that 7 million courageous Afghans voted, a number that represents a 58 percent voter turnout. That’s considerably higher than the 4.5 million Afghans who voted in their last election, in 2009.
The high voter turnout in Afghanistan tells me two things. First, despite what many on the right will tell you, there are people in the Muslim world who embrace democracy. While Muslims are in no way monolithic, clearly the 7 million Afghans who risked their lives to vote are a shining example of people who very much want democracy. As a side note, anyone who tells you all Muslims think a certain way on any issue understands nothing about Muslims. When you see those people on Fox “News,” change the channel because they are making you dumber.
My second takeaway is that our voter turnout is pathetic. The Afghans voted despite the Taliban’s threats of murder. What’s the biggest thing we risk to vote? Maybe missing an episode of The Big Bang Theory or Keeping Up with the Kardashians?
Yet in our 2010 midterm elections, in which we elected all 435 members of the House, 37 U.S. senators, and local officials around the country, voter turnout was just 41 percent. Worse still, Texas had an anemic 32 percent turnout and Tennessee was close behind at 34 percent.
That’s right—in 2010 so few people voted that we were in danger of not even being a democracy.
It’s possible that we will see an even lower turnout in this November’s midterm elections. And don’t be surprised if the numbers keep trending downward in the years to come.
There’s an overall sense that voting is meaningless, thanks in large part to the conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court who over the past few years, including last week, have rendered decisions that give the wealthy and large corporations much more influence in our elections. As I wrote last week, these court rulings have made an increasing number of Americans distrust our government; alarmingly, 26 percent of those polled in a 2012 study by the Brennan Center for Justice said they were less likely to vote.
Add to that the push by some Republican officials to curtail early voting and enact voter ID laws that studies say will reduce voter turnout further. Republicans claim these laws are to protect the “integrity” of our elections. I’m sure that’s their concern, just as the conservative Supreme Court justices who invalidated campaign finance laws did so to protect the average American’s right to participate in our democracy by giving the rich and big business even more influence in elections.
In Afghanistan, the 2014 election is over but the fight for democracy continues. On Sunday, two election workers were killed by a roadside bomb that also destroyed some ballots. But in six weeks, the Afghan people will have the results of an election that was truly a profile in courage.
In our case, however, questions remain. Can we find a way to inspire people to vote and engage in our democracy? If not and voter turnout keeps falling, at what point will we no longer be able to say with a straight face that we are a democracy?