THE BLOG

What's Missing from Today's Money Totals

07/15/2014 03:02 pm ET | Updated Sep 14, 2014
Blend Images - Hill Street Studios via Getty Images

During the course of this week, there will be a brief but intense conversation about one of the most powerful driving forces in politics -- money. Tuesday's Federal Election Commission deadline for congressional candidates and committees to disclose their quarterly campaign finances means that once again financial numbers are being held up as a measure of power.

It should come as no surprise that the candidates who raised the most during the second quarter of 2014 will garner the most media coverage and attention. Cable news network pundits will talk exuberantly about the explosion of spending by outside groups, which has quadrupled since 2006, and the sheer volume of reported dollars raised and spent will leave Americans wondering whether their vote matters when matched up against the deep pockets of a wealthy few.

And yet, there's the case of Eric Cantor, former House Majority Leader and arguably once one of the most powerful figures in Washington. The storyline is familiar to anyone who follows politics at all. In a modern day version of David vs. Goliath, underdog academic David Brat defeated Cantor in the Virginia primary, spending a paltry $200,000 to Cantor's massive $5 million. Across the board, initial coverage of this tale contained a variation of one word over and over again -- shock. Think about that for a moment. We have become so accustomed to equating money with power that we were flabbergasted when what should determine an election -- turning out to vote -- actually did.

Granted, that election was the exception to the rule -- but it doesn't have to be. Let's look at the facts. Over the last three decades, voter turnout in midterm elections has averaged 40 percent. On the local level, the story is even worse. Of the 340 mayoral elections held in 144 U.S. cities from 1996-2012, voter turnout in those cities averaged 25.8 percent -- in many cities mayors have been elected with single-digit turnout. What this means is that what happened in Virginia could happen all over our country. This is simple math. There are more potential voters than there are actual voters. And if they can be motivated, their collective voices will rise above the influence of money in politics.

But for years, conventional wisdom has held that this will not happen. Political professionals will quickly point out that the vast majority of Americans are disengaged -- and that trend is only accelerating. According to a recent Gallup poll, a majority of U.S. registered voters (53 percent) say they are less enthusiastic about voting in the upcoming midterms than in previous elections. Moreover, younger generations, those who surprised America with their influence by voting in record numbers in 2008 for Barack Obama, are now showing increased apathy. A Harvard University Institute of Politics survey shows that young adult voters in the U.S. are less motivated than at any time in at least 14 years, with fewer than one-in-four saying they will definitely cast ballots in November's midterm congressional races.

Yes, these are disturbing trends but they are exactly that -- trends. They reflect the current behavior of the day, the world that is not what could be. For those who truly want to revitalize democracy in America, our focus should not be on the money race but instead on how we can increase public participation in our system of government. There are many ideas being discussed -- from making election day a national holiday to expanding early voting to making voting itself compulsory and more. We should continue those conversations, but to them I would add the transformative potential of technology.

Creating platforms and applications that allow Americans to more easily harness their collective strength and become actively engaged is where our focus should be. Because today, money is already well represented in politics. What's increasingly missing are the voters themselves.