Voter turnout is depressingly low. Why?
There were elections around the country on Tuesday this week. Did you know?
In Santa Barbara, we had the first election for the City Council since the City switched to geographic (rather than at-large) districts to settle a civil rights lawsuit. Three seats on the City Council were contested, with several candidates running for each seat. There was consistent media coverage of the campaigns. Candidates walked their districts regularly. Several candidates even purchased television advertising. By all accounts, this was to be a landmark election, with citizens enthusiastically voting for a true representative of each community.
So, what was the turnout? 35%. Yes, 35%. Even in an era where 60% voter turnout is considered “high” (talk about grade inflation), 35% is laughably low.
Why the low numbers? The traditional excuses made for not voting did not apply in Santa Barbara. It is difficult to miss a vote based on a busy daily schedule, being ill, or being out of town when voting is conducted entirely by mail. Voters received their ballots by mail well in advance of the election and had the option of returning them by mail if they had to work on Tuesday, were too busy surfing, or did not wish to brave the elements in order to take their ballots to a drop off center. Of course, there were no elements to brave in Santa Barbara on Tuesday, which has glorious weather in early November.
It was also quite nice on Tuesday in much of Kentucky, which voted for its Governor. By all accounts, that election was hotly contested and turned on critical policy issues, with the Republican candidate pledging to opt-out of Obamacare if elected. So, it is hard to believe that “lack of interest” was a factor influencing voter turnout. Yet turnout was worse than Santa Barbara: 30%. Yes, 30%. When arguably the most controversial public policy change of the past decade was the dominant issue in an election, barely 3 in 10 voters could be bothered to vote.
What could possibly explain these abysmally low numbers? I know what you are thinking, and I already checked. There were no “Big Bang Theory” or “Walking Dead” marathons running on Tuesday, although I cannot rule out thousands of voters binging on Netflix or Amazon.
If Americans are telling the truth, the only remaining explanations for our poor turnout are that we either forgot to vote or that we disliked the candidates. Given what we’ve had to put up with lately, I see the latter as the more candid answer. But even dislike of candidates cannot explain our depressingly low turnout. We are accustomed to casting ballots while holding our noses. Indeed, thousands of people voted for the newly elected Mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut despite the fact that he was convicted of embezzlement while previously serving as Mayor.
So, why don’t we vote? Is it apathy? Complacency? Indifference? Do we really believe that nothing changes regardless of who is elected, notwithstanding overwhelming evidence to the contrary? I don’t have the answer. But I do know that we cannot improve civic engagement unless we understand why people opt out.
Send me your thoughts. Let’s see if we can figure this out.