Friday, March 13, 2009

Can Low Voter Turnout be Helped?

Many have bewailed Utah’s relatively low voter turnout rate. NonprofitVote.org reports that in the recent election, only 54.8% of Utah’s eligible voters bothered to vote, putting the state in a dismal 48th place nationwide.

But the statistics provided by NonprofitVote.org reveal a little more information. Just four years earlier, 68% of Utah’s eligible voters turned out, putting Utah in 28th place among states, about in the middle of the pack.

When considering the four-decade trend, Utah’s low 2008 voter turnout is an anomaly. It falls so far out of line that, depending on the statistic being modeled, most statisticians would drop the data as an outlier.

By age, income, marital status, and race categories, Utahans tend to vote at rates very similar to those of the national average for each grouping. Utah’s rate is brought down by its high number of young adults ages 18-24, the group with the lowest turnout across the nation.

The chief reasons for the 13.2% drop between 2004 and 2008 seem quite obvious. Many Utah voters weren’t much interested in voting for any of the presidential candidates. Remember, that in the presidential primary, the vast majority voted for Romney. Despite the fact that Gov. Huntsman was lined up behind McCain, many Utahans felt jilted and never warmed to the crusty senator from Arizona.

Moreover, there were no competitive statewide races to bring voters out. The governorship was nailed down tight. The big race of interest in the third congressional district had essentially been decided in the primary. Many municipalities hold their races in the off years, so there was less interest generated from that level as well.

Moreover, had 13.2% or even 30% more voters turned out in Utah, it would not have altered the outcome almost any race. These factors — no validating nationwide or statewide race, few local races, and races whose outcomes were predetermined — reduced the incentive for people to vote last November.

Today’s Utah Policy Daily weighs in on this issue.
“To those who say that partisanship and Utah’s caucus system create voter apathy and low turnout, John E. Gidney, a former candidate for Taylorsville City Council, has this response: “City elections are non-partisan. Candidates are not decided in caucus or convention but in a primary, if needed, and then they go on to the general election. Elected city officials can have great effect on people's lives, yet city elections usually have the lowest voter turnout of any election. Why don't people vote? That is a question that probably has many answers but one is plain apathy!””
I have been thinking about this since only 9% of registered voters in my city voted in the 2007 municipal primary election. We like to lambaste people as too apathetic to do their civic duty. While nagging may shame some people into voting, I do not believe that is a course that will produce better civic involvement.

I have to believe that most of my neighbors are rational people that are interested in doing what is best for themselves and for their community. In my own city I have watched voter turnout vary drastically from election to election. Far more people vote when they feel passionate about a candidate or an issue or when they think that their vote may actually make a difference. The less there is of either factor — passion or competition — the less likely it is that people will vote.

My city also held a special bond election in 2007 to vote for whether to raise everyone’s property tax by a fairly significant amount to pay to cover the lap pool portion of the city’s swimming facility so that it could operate year round. This was a clear issue that impacted voters directly. More voters were informed and motivated. As I noted back then, 25.6% voted in that election. 71% of them voted against the tax increase.

A couple of years earlier, a particular city council member had made a real nuisance of himself to several small businesses in the city. In doing so, he had abused the authority with which the voters had trusted him. Banter about it went back and forth in the newspaper and in council meetings for weeks. Voter turnout in the nonpartisan primary was more than three times the 2007 municipal primary turnout. Out of a field of candidates, this tenured council member came in a distant last place.

In the case of my city’s 2007 municipal primary, a field of 10 candidates was being reduced to a field of six for the final election. Although there was plenty of competition, it was frankly very difficult to judge the relative value of any of the candidates, even after attending meetings. Most voters figured that it would be better to let those that had some inside knowledge about the candidates make the selection, rather than vote blindly.

You can argue that all of the city’s registered voters should have become more informed, but I have to tell you that this is far more difficult than it sounds. I personally knew many of the candidates, read all the campaign literature I could get my hands on, and talked to the candidates personally. All of the information I gathered was still very scanty. I was somewhat upset when I went to the polls that I had gone far out of my way to become informed and still didn’t have enough information upon which to base a solid decision. How can I fault my neighbors for feeling the same way?

Our political parties do much to get out the vote, but they are often their own worst enemies. Examples of corruption and bizarre cartoon-like behavior and stances in both parties are too numerous to count. Why should anyone trust any adherent to our major political parties?

Low voter turnout has many causes and solutions are elusive. While simply getting more people out to vote rarely makes a difference in the outcome of a race, having more people disconnected from the political process makes a difference in the quality of the process and in our governmental institutions. It makes for different types of candidates and for different types of actions once people are in office. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

This is part of the reason for the declining level of confidence Americans have in their political institutions. That confidence decline, in turn, engenders voter apathy. It is a self perpetuating downward cycle. The authors of this article discuss our failing governmental institutions, noting:
“Only less than a quarter of Americans believe that the federal government truly reflects the will of the people. Almost half disagree with the idea that no one can earn a living or live "an American life" without protection and empowerment by the government, while only one-third agree. … It shows fundamentally that public confidence in government remains low and is slipping.”
This only makes people more likely to become politically disengaged. Still, this SL Trib article (although paying tribute to some debunked myths about voter turnout) discusses how voter turnout is tied to a larger nationwide social pattern of general decline in social and civic institutions, which I posted about in September 2007. It is hard to combat a broad social trend.

Difficult as that may be, I think it is essential to teach the importance of civic involvement. I believe that what I wrote in September 2007 is still accurate: “Civic disengagement ultimately leaves a political class in charge of more of our lives than we ever thought possible, and without adequate checks and balances.” That, my friends, is the opposite of what America is supposed to be about.

Some politicos think the situation is hopeless and cannot be successfully turned around in any meaningful way without an actual revolution. Are they right?

10 comments:

Jake said...

Personally, I think low voter turnout in national elections is largely due to the inherent nature of our electoral system. With the winner-take-all district/region based system, having a state such as Utah where the outcome is all but decided prior to candidates even filing to run, there is not much incentive for voters to turnout, no matter their political affiliations. If you side with the underdog candidate, your vote feels like it's useless because your choice will very likely not even come close to winning. If you side with the favored candidate (Republican candidate in Utah) then you feel your vote won't matter because everyone else will have already decided the election.

This type of system does encourage voter turnout in races where the decision is close. In states such as Ohio and Florida in recent Presidential elections, voter turnout has been higher than other states that are strong blue or strong red states. In states with close races, voters feel their vote will matter. In especially close races like the Senate race in Minnesota, every vote is literally getting counted twice.

As for voters being able to get a hold of relevant information prior to an election, I have to say I was very disappointed in the voter information packet put out by the Lt Gov's office last year. There were a number of constitutional amendments on the ballot here in Utah and not a single one had a dissenting opinion written. Even if an issue is immensely popular, I think the Lt Gov. has a duty to seek out the opposing opinion and publish it for voters to decide for themselves.

Concerning the reasons for the drop in voter turnout in Utah between 2004 and 2008, I personally think it was due to the popularity of the Democratic candidate. A lot of voters felt the Democratic candidate was the better candidate when compared to 2004, but because Utah was pretty much already assured to go Republican, a lot of those voters likely decided to just stay home that day. It may be incorrect, but that's just my guess as to the reason.

I personally would like to see some type of state agency put a website up for voter information that would allow all cities, counties, and municipalities in Utah to use to post their voter information. Allow candidates for every level of office in this state to use that service to put their opinions and positions in one central location for all voters to have access to.

Frank Staheli said...

I disagree with the Utah Policy Daily snippet that you include in your article.

Low voter turnout derives in large part from the realities that (a) local politics is becoming more and more meaningless because power continues to concentrate in Washington, and (b) that we have few choices at the federal level, as nearly everyone at that level is enamored with the power that political concentration brings.

When we bring most governmental responsibility back to the local and state levels where it belongs, we'll see a lot higher voter turnout.

I traditionally have not been in favor of federal term limits, but I do think it would solve this particular problem.

Reach Upward said...

Interesting thoughts, Jake and Frank. I think Frank has a point about power concentration. But I also have to look at my own city. There seems to be plenty of business each council meeting, but a significant chunk of it (not all of it) deals with interactions with other governmental entities.

For example, with an expanding population, the city has been working on tapping a new well to meet future water needs. There has been a fair amount of citizen input on this issue. The city has also had to coordinate with state and federal agencies on the matter regarding safety and environmental impact. I can't say that's all bad, but it's not all good either.

I'd be particularly interested in Frank expanding his thought on local politics becoming meaningless, since he has served on a city council and can provide an insider's view.

In considering Jake's concerns about the winner-take-all system, I can see both good and bad to it. I have wondered about a system where it is winner-take-all per congressional district. Whichever presidential candidate wins in a house district gets that district's electoral vote. Whichever candidate wins the state gets both of the state's senatorial electoral votes.

Such a system would make campaigning in each district more important. But it would also put vast amounts of power into the hands of state legislatures that draw up the boundaries of congressional districts. If you think gerrymandering is bad now, just imagine what it would be like under the system I have suggested.

Democracy Lover said...

I've been reading a very interesting book called The Big Sort. The author demonstrates that Americans have increasingly segregated themselves according to political/religious views over the last 30 years. In most jurisdictions, one party clearly dominates and opposition is futile.

The number of counties and states where elections are really contested between Dems and Repubs and liberals and conservatives is small indeed. If the outcome is known, there is little incentive to turnout. As Jake points out, this is exacerbated by the winner-take-all nature of our electoral system. (The Electoral College amplifies this distortion.)

The claim that turnout is low because of increasing federal power seems specious to me. First of all we have to admit that there are expansions of federal power supported by conservatives as well as liberals. Second if federal power increases in a way you do not like, it seems all the more reason to get out and vote for people who think as you do and will stand up to this perceived power shift.

One other comment - in most of the country, voters have very little information about the issues and candidates in local elections. There are a few locally-owned newspapers that cover local politics, but most have declining readership. Chain newspapers and broadcast media generally ignore local politics - barring a sex scandal of course. If I don't know who the candidates are and don't know what the issues are, I am very likely to stay home.

David said...

"Some politicos think the situation is hopeless and cannot be successfully turned around in any meaningful way without an actual revolution. Are they right? "

I steadfastly refuse to believe that it cannot be turned around without an actual revolution. That being said, there is no way to know right now if it ever will be turned around in a meaningful way without a revolution.

Reach Upward said...

Great comments. You have all given me much to think about.

I too have paid attention to the Big Sort data. As our society has become more mobile, we have become increasingly likely to choose to live in areas with others that look, act, and think like ourselves.

I am completely in favor of people having the kind of freedom that allows them to live where they wish. I would oppose forced integration just as much as I would oppose laws and regulations designed to keep 'outsiders' from moving into an area.

But it is important for us to deal in a healthy manner with the sectionalized pluralism that results from free choice.

Interestingly, the condition of colonial America was not much different with respect to sectionalized pluralism. That was the impetus for the system of government devised by the Founders that intended to protect the rights of people with diverse thought, background, and lifestyle.

We can see that this imperfect system has sometimes worked well and has at other times ended up in serious social conflict.

This is a much larger issue than simply voter turnout. Much to think about, indeed.

Frank Staheli said...

When I served on a city council, I found it interesting that as soon as we tried to raise taxes or change what they could do with their property, people came out in large numbers. Other than that, they didn't care. These same people can't possibly complain as effectively to state or federal governments--but that's where most of their taxes are levied--so they become apathetic voters, mostly even on a local level. Thirty and forty years ago, when my father served on a different city council, turnout was always large, because the populace felt they still had some local control over their political lives. Now we're lucky if 10 people show up in a city that's twice as big as the one my father served in.

In the 3 years that I've been back from military duty since resigning from the city council (due to military duty), I've been to city council meetings 3 or 4 times. There weren't more than about 9 other people there.

Reach Upward said...

Thanks for responding to my request, Frank. Indeed, it is as if most people are willing to let the pros handle matters as long as it doesn't raise their taxes. I wonder if that goes hand in glove with our increasingly specialized workforce. We are increasingly used to letting experts handle matters.

Democracy Lover said...

Perhaps Frank's experience is a result of the particular political makeup of his town. Where I live, there certainly are local pols who talk about lowering taxes, etc., but you will get a much bigger crowd at the meeting if they think services (particularly education) will be sacrificed to keep taxes low.

The dramatically increased polarization of our electorate that has happened over the last 30-40 years makes governing very difficult. We no longer have compromise because neither side can bend without losing support from their base. How then can we make policy for a nation or even a state when there is no ground for agreement on anything?

Reach Upward said...

I think there is a fair amount of agreement on a number of issues and points. But there are significant forces that gain from polarization. Thus, they work hard to keep the focus mainly on points of disagreement with the result that Americans are increasingly pitted against each other.

There are certainly areas of sharp disagreement, but the largest portion of people in our nation see most issues in a much more moderate light than is portrayed by the left and the right. They are more likely to see all political ideologues in a similarly unfavorable light.