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Friday, October 24, 2014

Battling Through Voter Apathy

It was a cool wet morning on October 1 when my husband and I volunteered at a voter registration table in Howard Community College’s Duncan Hall.  This is one of the growing number of buildings at HCC, which is regarded as one of the best community colleges in the nation.  The semi-annual drive representing the Columbia Democratic Club is non-partisan; we just try to get the kids to register to vote and do not discuss candidates or parties unless we’re asked.  

Between classes, the millenials bustle about enroute to their next destination, perhaps English, History, or a Political Science course.  They form an amazingly vibrant tapestry of diversity reflecting virtually every race and nationality under the sun.  The students shuttle through the hall alone, in pairs or in groups toting backpacks with many of them plugged into their electronic devices.
“Are you registered to vote?” one of us calls out to a young woman in a tan jacket. 

Some good news: “I’m already registered.”  “Great,” we say approvingly.

“Are you registered to vote?” we ask again to a group of four, a little damp from the rain, coming through the doors from the quad.  
“Can’t now, on the way to class.” Okay, that’s understandable.

“We’ll be here ‘til 2,” we point out, but we suspect they’re not coming back.
To another, “Would you like to register to vote?” 

Now the bad news: “I’m good,” says a young man trying to breeze past our table to anyplace but.
“Don’t you want to vote in the election?”

“Not really.”
During the four-hour span we managed to sign up 20 students, and with some it was a hard sell.  The election was a month away yet there was no enthusiasm among the students.  It’s not unusual. 

Ever since the voting age was changed to 18, this age group historically had low turnout at the polls.  Most have not yet been wired to politics and are oblivious to the issues of the day.  The Obama candidacy generated considerable electricity throughout the nation’s college campuses, and turnout spiked among this demographic, especially in 2008.  In 2012 it was still better than the norm but declined somewhat from the previous presidential election.
Now we are facing the dreaded mid-terms, and I’m not referring to the exams these kids zipping through Duncan Hall would soon be facing.  These off-year elections when no presidential contest is in play typically attract a paltry fraction of all registered voters, not just the eligible youth.

The phenomenon of only a minority of the electorate choosing our leaders has a consequence. George Jean Nathan, a collaborator with H.L Mencken, once said, “Bad officials are the ones elected by good citizens who do not vote.”
Low voter turnout has long been analyzed by political pundits, and so far no one has been successful in ensuring a consistently strong turnout at the polls.  Even with early voting in many states including Maryland, the results are the same.  Campaigns have programmed hefty amounts of money from their budgets to implement sophisticated Get out the Vote (GOTV) mechanisms that would encourage their computer-identified supporters to head to the polling places.

Even presidential elections produce disappointing turnouts.  Between 1960 and 2008, the percentage of eligible voters who have bothered to cast their ballots during these elections have ranged from about 49 percent to 63 percent. This means that as much as half of American voters don’t care enough to decide which candidate would make a good chief executive.
Locally, there are consequential elections taking place.  Besides the gubernatorial race, the entire state Senate and House of Delegates are up for grabs not to mention Congressional seats. Plus, there are numerous county-level races with the county executive election in Howard County between pro-LGBT candidates Courtney Watson and Allan H. Kittleman figuring to be tightly contested.

“Bad officials are the ones elected by good citizens who do not vote.”

Yet, with so much at stake there has seemingly been a lack of voltage during this cycle.  Much of this can be attributed to the ho-hum campaigns of Lt. Governor Anthony Brown and Larry Hogan.  Neither has caught fire either because of their style, the negative ads, the bland debates or a lack of a singular burning issue.  The Governor’s race at the top of the ticket typically drives voter turnout, not local Orphan Court judge races or other down ballot contests.   #hocopolitics
Whether you’re stoked for this election or not, one thing we can do is pay back our elected officials who supported marriage equality and transgender non-discrimination measures during the past term.  We owe it to them for making the tough votes and speaking out not knowing how such controversial stances would affect their political careers. 

If you are progressive, you should check out Progressive Maryland’s voter guide.  In this way, you can reward those who stood for us whether you ever plan to marry or not or whether you’re transgender or not.  These folks deserve our votes.   #hocopolitics
There are many reasons for voter apathy.  They include a lack of awareness of the issues, a disdain for politicians in general, not believing their vote matters, feeling politically alienated, dislike for the specific candidates, and other factors.  Any or all of these plus weather conditions or ill health will keep folks home.

Accordingly, many people decry the disturbingly low turnouts.  You hear them say, “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.”  Well actually one does have that right. But as Abraham Lincoln commented, “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

1 comment:

Ken Stevens said...

Indeed, non-voters can complain if they choose, but they shouldn't expect anyone to listen to their complaints. I wouldn't listen anyway. And they will have to live with the government other people choose for them.