The Straits Times says

When every precious vote counts

It is something of an anomaly that in the United States, often called the world's greatest democracy, voter turnout in presidential elections has not been impressive recently. While voting is not compulsory there, one would expect people with opinions on everything to make time to register their voice in the largest numbers. Instead, the 2012 election saw turnout of a tad below 54 per cent, based on 129 million votes cast and an estimated voting-age population of nearly 241 million. This was lower than the 58 per cent recorded in 2008, when Mr Barack Obama won the White House. Compared with other developed nations such as Sweden and Belgium, where the participation rates top 80 per cent, the US fares poorly.

It would be a pity if this were to be repeated in the coming election. To be sure, there is plenty to keep the voter away, like the mudslinging and nastiness that have characterised this race. The polarising quality of the principal candidates has contributed to voter disenchantment with politicians generally. While it has been particularly pronounced in this election - 59 per cent of Americans have an unfavourable view of both Mrs Hillary Clinton and Mr Donald Trump - the partisan politics of recent years had already put off many.

This being the first time a female candidate has figured on the slate, that should ordinarily have bred voting interest among women. But the latest controversy over Mrs Clinton's use of a private e-mail server during her stint as secretary of state may have dented some of the support for her. Black votes, too, are seen to be lethargic this time compared with 2012. On the other hand, Hispanics, who have often been targeted by Mr Trump, are showing a lot of enthusiasm. Voter turnout matters because "a restricted primary voter pool allots disproportionate influence to voters at the extreme ends of the political spectrum", as noted by an American commentator.

Only two in three of those in the voting-age population have been registered. This indicates that American political parties simply need to work the ground harder to register more voters and get them to participate in party primaries. The higher the turnout, the better for American democracy because the outcome could well be decided in a perverse way otherwise. Many now see the current race as an "unpopularity contest" with victory going to the leader least disliked.

Other countries watching the US election would be also troubled by the divisiveness that can creep into a democratic society. They too could be vulnerable if parties share less about what's good for the nation, when activists have less reason to move to the centre to garner wide support, and when communication processes sharpen divisions. The only way to ensure the system delivers leaders who warrant the trust of the majority is for voters to get involved.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2016, with the headline 'When every precious vote counts'. Print Edition | Subscribe