A few years ago, my wife and I hiked up Mount Greylock in Massachusetts.
It was taxing but fun, with owls spotted and streams forded. When we reached the summit, our effort was rewarded with wonderful views of the Taconic and Berkshire Mountains — 90 miles on a clear day, they say — a panorama worthy of the highest peak in Massachusetts.
Mount Greylock is 3,491 feet tall. There are literally hundreds upon hundreds of mountains in the United States that are taller, including dozens in each of two neighbors, New Hampshire’s White Mountains and New York’s Adirondacks. Nearly 190 peaks are taller than 12,000 feet.
The point is: Height is relative.
That’s the thing about numbers. They have a value, but your view of that changes when you have something with which to compare them.
That thought became newly relevant last week as voting turnout was tabulated for the 2020 election. The news alert that landed in my inbox was a grabber: Turnout was the highest in more than a century, with most states on track to set records of one kind or another as mail-in ballots were still being counted.
Impressive? Sure, in a modest way. Nearly 65% of those eligible to vote did cast a ballot, and that figure will creep up another point or two as vote tallies continue. That’s higher than high-turnout years like 2008 (Barack Obama vs. John McCain) and 1960 (John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon), and likely will end up besting every election since 1900. Back then, the pool of eligible voters was much smaller; most notably, women were still 20 years away from gaining the right to vote.
So 65%-plus is worth applauding. But let’s not be too smug. We might be the world’s foremost proponent of democracy, but we’re relative laggards when it comes to exercising the franchise.
The United States ranks 30th out of 35 nations for which data are available in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group composed mostly of highly developed democratic nations. The Pew Research Center report released last week looked at the most recent national election in each country, which at that point was 2016 for the United States, and analyzed turnout based on voting-age population (18 and over in the United States), which is a little different from eligible voters (which wouldn’t include, for example, felons in some states). The 2020 turnout will move us up a few notches in the rankings but not too far. Ahead of us are countries ranging from Turkey to Sweden, Australia to Mexico, Slovakia to Lithuania, and Canada to Greece.
A handful of these countries have some form of compulsory voting, which shouldn’t be necessary in a nation whose citizens truly value the right to vote and which probably would be viewed by some Americans as an infringement on their liberty. Go figure.
But here’s the question: What to do about the one-third or so of eligible Americans who didn’t vote?
Some are registered to vote but did not, and you wonder — given this cycle’s stark choices, major consequences and intense passions — whether they ever will. But most of the eligible non-voters are not registered, and you wonder how we as a culture are failing to instill in them the sense of duty to country all voters should feel?
We can expand the days and hours and methods of voting, as we did this year despite a concerted attempt to block such moves, but what if not voting is not a matter of opportunity but of active choice?
If voting in the United States is a mountain, we’re still far from the summit, and the view is not at all clear.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.