Emilee Booth Chapman, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, has a new book that examines the idea of the vote, and what this experience means for citizens, for the structure of government, and, as the title indicates, for democracy. Booth Chapman is a political theorist, so she is approaching the actual experience of voting not only as an activity that we all do “together” but also considering how this experience is part of democracy.
What Election Day: How We Vote and What It Means for Democracy (Princeton UP, 2022) also teaches us is that within the study of democratic theory, not all that much attention has been directed at the idea of and the execution of the vote itself. While there is an approach within democratic theory that citizens/individuals should think about and engage with other dimensions of democratic participation beyond the vote—and this is also important, since it focuses on places of deliberation, community engagement, and the like—it obscures the importance of this particularly momentous component of democratic theory and democracy in action. Booth Chapman argues that there are three dynamics that are particularly important to consider in context of the role of voting in elections in democracies: 1. Mass participation by the citizenry, which is an experience where the individual citizen participates in doing something, voting, together with others; 2. The experience of the aggregate equality of the vote itself—each individual vote is equal; 3. The momentousness of the election event itself—this is an important moment that we all recognize as noteworthy and valuable.
Voting is something that we generally do with others, though more recent elections in the United States have seen the experience spread out over time, and also as an experience that is done separately, at home, and then mailed into officials. Thus, we have also seen the temporal dilution of the voting experience of late. Given how and where people are voting, particularly in the United States, we have also started to see a polarization in the voting experience, with more Democrats voting early in person or via absentee or mail-in ballots, and more Republicans going to vote at the polling places on election day. Because of this expanding gap between what people are doing, there is a growing suspiciousness about the vote itself and the voting experience. This evolving experience, overlaid with partisan polarization, is examined in Election Day, and is in some tension with another fundamental thesis of the vote, which is the foundational equality of the voting experience and the vote, since we recognize that we are each part of this shared political project—voting within a democracy—and that generally makes citizens feel like the process is legitimate.
Voting is indeed an important part of democracy, and Emilee Booth Chapman’s new book helps us to understand the various dimensions of why and how voting continues to be vital to the function and shape of contemporary democracies.
Lilly J. Goren is a professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-host of the New Books in Political Science channel at the New Books Network. She is co-editor of The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (University Press of Kansas, 2022), as well as co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012). She can be reached @gorenlj.bsky.social