“I have solved this political dilemma in a very direct way: I don’t vote. On Election Day, I stay home.” - George Carlin
(MintPress) – Headlines around the country overwhelmingly read in similar fashion after a handful of states conducted their primary elections on Tuesday. For the most part, the stories made note of low voter turnout, as state primary elections usually see far less participation than general and presidential elections. In Wisconsin, the Government Accountability Board was hoping for 20 percent participation across the state. In Minnesota, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie estimated 15 percent of voters would go to the booths. But could factors such as a down economy and voter fatigue do the same thing for this year’s general election?
The question comes as Minnesota saw an unprecedented 9 percent of eligible voters cast their votes, far lower than the state average and Ritchie’s prediction. In Wisconsin, however, participation was better, where cities such as Madison saw 23 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. But Wisconsin has become a national political player since the attempted recall of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, which saw participation of over 30 percent. The recall primary a couple months back was the highest for a partisan primary in Wisconsin in 60 years.
What that means for general elections is a mixed bag. Rhodes Cook, a contributor to the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, speculates that this year’s presidential election will see a lower turnout than those in 2008 and 2004. In 2004, an estimated 60 percent of the eligible voting population cast ballots, the first time that high of percentage voted since 1968. In 2008, turnout was 62 percent. Cook said voters were likely to go to the polls those two years because they were the height of two controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in 2008 there was no incumbent, sparking voters’ interests.
This year, however, Cook noted that there is already evidence suggesting lower turnouts. Poor presidential primary participation is a primary indicator, he wrote.
“It is hard to find much enthusiasm in either party. Turnout for the presidential primaries, which approached 60 million in 2008, was roughly half that this year,” Cook wrote. “The decline among Democrats from the high-voltage contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton four years ago … to this year’s total of about 9 million is understandable given the absence of a Democratic race in 2012. But the Republican presidential primary vote also went down this time — from nearly 21 million in 2008 to less than 19 million …”
Influences of voter turnout
Earlier in the year, high-profile redistricting court cases occurred in states such as Texas and Minnesota, where the usual claims of gerrymandering were heard. As political parties argued the merits of political districts and the saturation of particular voter demographics, voters saw the arguments as a political ploy that does nothing for the actual voter, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group. The group’s research coordinator, Bill Mahoney, says the current redistricting system makes voters feel as though their vote does not really count.
Case in point: After a hotly contested redistricting case in New York in 2006, the following election saw 100 percent of incumbents win by an average margin of nearly 61 percent. In 2010, as a result of what voters felt was unfair manipulation of voter demographics, only 34.9 percent of eligible New York voters voted in the governor election – the fourth lowest turnout in the entire nation that year.
“Uncontested elections are a sign that people think that they don’t stand a chance. This is not good for democracy,” Mahoney said. “[The report] definitely makes a case that the current system makes a negative impact on voters … It clearly shows elections in New York state are not competitive because the lines are drawn to give the elections to the incumbents. Most elections are already decided before the vote happens. It’s not fair to the voters.”
There have also been suggestions that the poor economy indirectly plays a role in voter turnout as well. As it stood prior to the height of the recession, Americans move more to different residences than voters in other developed countries. During the recession, that trend has accelerated in certain demographics, as the poor have gravitated toward poorer neighborhoods at a faster rate while the number of upper-income households living in upper-income neighborhoods doubled in 2010.
People are also more willing to move to find work or be closer to relatives, which all plays into the idea that voter pre-registration in America influences turnout. In the U.S., voters are required to pre-register whenever they move into a new residence. Marc Schulman of History Central notes that once pre-registration was required at the turn of the 20th century, voter participation began to fall.
“The introduction of required voter pre-registration corresponds with the decrease in voter participation in U.S. elections,” Shulman explained. “Another fact supporting the view that pre-registration hinders U.S. voter turnout is that the few states that allow same-day voter registration have a higher than average turnout: From Minnesota with 77.7 percent to a low rate of 63.7 percent for Idaho in the 2008 elections. These rates must be compared to the overall U.S. voter turnout average of 61.6 percent.
Voter disdain, fatigue
It’s no secret that Congress is not popular with Americans. A recent Gallup poll found that Congress’ approval rating tied an all-time low with 10 percent. Gallup has long speculated over whether the poor approval rating will motivate Americans to vote at the polls, or push them toward political apathy. Even during this week’s primary elections, some citizens said they were fed up with the process even before the presidential election.
“Day after day, my mailboxes are stuffed with [mailers] asking me to vote for a certain individual,” Wisconsin resident Herb Onasch told a Fox News affiliate.
Onasch speaks to what the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate deemed sensationalized politics. The center’s director, Curtis Gans, has said voters have developed a growing sense that politics is a dirty business that is reliant on money and media coverage that is increasingly focusing on politicians’ sound bites rather than fact-finding investigations.
In 2000, Independent Conn. Sen. Joseph Lieberman said the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal was the tipping point in America where politicians were immediately put on the defensive in their legitimacy to represent the U.S. In his book, “In Praise of Public Life,” Lieberman said that was the point in which public office was on par with a soap opera, and it never really recovered.
“The Clinton-Lewinsky saga is the most vivid example we have of the virus of lost standards being passed back and forth among the entertainment culture, the news media and government, making each more ill,” Lieberman wrote.