Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What If They Held an Election and Nobody Showed?

Election Day is upon us once again, and like most off year elections, only a distressing minority of the electorate will bother sacrificing a few moments of their precious time to make their voice heard.

The projected turn out in my state was listed as 20 to 25% of eligible voters. Most commentators I've read consider even that projection to be an overestimation of the probable result. From the Altoona Mirror (print edition only, it's an AP story so I'm linking to it at PhillyBlurbs):

Political science professor Christopher Borick, of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, predicted Monday only 20 to 25 percent of the state's 8.2 million registered voters will bother to cast ballots in the election, which comes between last year's elections for governor and a U.S. Senate seat and next year's campaigns for president and the other Senate seat.

Franklin & Marshall College pollster Terry Madonna, in Lancaster, leaned toward the lower end of Borick's turnout range.

"I think, if we get to 20 (percent), declare victory," Madonna said.

Why is the estimated turn out so low? Let's take my home county as an example.

For Tuesday's election, Blair County has 83,650 registered voters, the county's voter registration office reports. Those who go to the polls will be able to cast ballots for county commissioner, municipal and school board candidates and judicial candidates for the commonwealth, superior and magisterial district courts.

Two years ago, with the same kind of public offices up for grabs, 19.93 percent of Blair County's 84,305 registered voters showed up to cast ballots.

In contrast, more than twice that - 43.4 percent - voted in November 2010 when the ballot had gubernatorial and legislative contenders.

In November 2008, when Barack Obama and John McCain were seeking the nation's presidency, Blair County's voter turnout was 64.87 percent.

Above quote from an online Altoona Mirror article on voter turn out. Why they have two separate articles on the same subject with the same message, one for the fish wrap and one for the interwebs, is a question I can not answer.

Pushing that mystery to the side, we see a rough 60/40/20 split in turn out, depending on the offices up for grabs. Presidential elections get about 60% of my neighbors off their ass, State elections draw 40ish%, and local contests are decided by a few people who got lost and randomly showed up at the polling place on their way to lunch.

I know this isn't a glamorous election year locally. I realize that judicial elections in PA are a strange beast that end up confusing more than a few voters. I assume that more than a few people who would never think of missing a presidential election are staying home today because they think this election doesn't really matter.

And turn out like this causes me to worry about the future of democracy in our nation. People get sucked in to the big races, the nationwide and statewide contests, to the point that they forget how local elections actually effect their lives. Other than 2 state judicial elections, today's ballot also included retention votes on several other judges, the election of Blair County commissioners and leadership positions for individual municipalities, and school board contests for most local school districts. These offices set local tax rates and make decisions that effect every citizen in the area, decisions that can arguably effect us all much more than decisions made at the National or State level, and yet only 20% of my neighbors will take the five minutes required to cast a ballot.

While I was at my polling place, only one other voter showed up. Two high school students with the look of the truly bored roamed the parking lot with campaign literature on the local school board race. Four poll workers with an average apparent age of 70 cackled, drank coffee, and gossiped loudly about how the town liberal showed up for another year. This is democracy?

If 60% of registered voters showed up at the polls today, I can honestly say that my vote would have been worthless. Since I am from an incredibly red district in a bluish state, most local elections offer me no real choices. If a Democrat even bothers to run for whatever office is up for election, they get crushed 70-30, and half the local offices have unopposed Republicans, which leads to some creative write in votes. In cases like that, I pick out one ignorant, far right, wingnut who's annoyed me recently, and take solace in the fact that I just cancelled out his vote.

But when only 20% bother to cast ballots, every member of that 20 suddenly has much more clout than they should. It is still 1 person, 1 vote, but when 80% of voters check themselves off the list, that 1 vote is cast in a louder voice. What havoc could we cause if a significant portion of local registered Democrats made it a point to go to the polls no matter what the contest? Could we turn the county blue, if only for a year?

Voting is a right people are willing to die for, yet we voluntarily sacrifice the right for no good reason.

All elections affect you. Your vote counts. Wake the fuck up and be a citizen of the country you claim so much to love.

Yes, the system is damaged, if not broken. Yes, change is needed. But not voting is not an effective strategy for self-governance, or for change.

Vote or shut the fuck up.

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