We had an interesting exchange in my Media and Policy class this past Thursday night. I team-teach that class with John Mutz, who–among his numerous other distinctions–served as Indiana’s Lt. Governor. Former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Ted Boehm and Common Cause policy director Julia Vaughn were guest speakers. So the discussion (about the impact of money in politics) was informed–and informative.
Julia noted that Indiana ranked next to last among the states in voter turnout, according to the recent Civic Health Index, and John challenged her statement that we should be embarrassed by that low level of participation, saying it didn’t bother him.
Should it bother us? This is one of those questions where the correct response is “it depends.”
If the folks who are blowing off the political process are low-information, low-interest voters, then I agree with John that it isn’t a problem. Why should the votes of the uninformed dilute the votes of those of us who take the process seriously? If you don’t know who you support and why, then you should stay home and let more thoughtful people participate.
On the other hand, if low turnout is due to one or more of the following reasons, we have a different problem and we need to do something about it.
We should be embarrassed if
We’ve made voting too difficult. If we’ve restricted the number of polling places, and/or limited the hours those polls are open so that voting is inconvenient for people with jobs and family obligations and actual lives, shame on us. Ditto if we’re requiring all sorts of documentation that older, poorer folks are unlikely to have.
We’ve made politics too nasty. If all voters hear are 30-second attacks on the integrity, brains and general humanity of those running for office, research suggests those voters tend to turn it all off and stay home on election day. (Some candidates will actually engage in nasty campaigning in order to evoke the “pox on both your houses” response and thus suppress turnout, if they think a larger turnout would benefit their opponent.)
We’ve made the ballot too daunting and complicated. Remind me again why we are voting for coroner, treasurer, recorder and dog-catcher? Who beside the candidates really cares who serves on township advisory boards?
We’ve failed to “connect the dots” between government policies and the reality of our daily lives, allowing voters to believe that candidates are all fungible. (Hurricane Sandy is just one example of why policies matter: if disaster relief had been turned back to state and local governments, does anyone really believe the result would have been the same for those who desperately needed help? Instead of throwing mud at each other, candidates need to make the case that their preferred policies matter, and how.)
We’ve constructed a system in which many votes really don’t matter. This is the most depressing reason of all, because it’s true. Yes, my vote for state and local offices still matters, more or less, but increasingly–thanks to gerrymandering and winner-take-all allocation of Electoral College votes–my votes for President and many other offices really don’t. (In this year’s Presidential election, those Hoosiers who vote for Obama might just as well flush those votes down the nearest toilet; Romney will win the state and take all of Indiana’s electoral college votes–even if the win is only by a point or two. A couple of states allocate their electoral votes to reflect the breakdown of the state’s popular vote–the constitution permits that–but Indiana and most others don’t.)
So–should we be embarrassed by our low turnout? Yes. If we institute changes that make voting more convenient, the ballot less daunting, the process less negative and/or fruitless and turnout is still low, then we can shrug it off and accuse the nonvoters among us of of poor citizenship. But not before.