Thursday, November 5, 2015

It's Democracy, Dumb Ass!

On Tuesday, my home state of Kentucky elected Republican Matt Bevin as governor. To outsiders, this hardly seems surprising. Kentucky consistently votes conservative in national elections. Currently both senators and five of the state's six representatives are Republican. Since the 1960s, Democratic presidential candidates have only carried the state four times, and each time the candidate was a Southerner (LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton -- twice).

However, state-level elections typically tell a different story. Democrats have held the governorship for 40 of the last 44 years. Additionally, the Kentucky House of Representatives is the only state legislative body in the South currently held by Democrats. So why the change?

Voter turnout has become the scapegoat. Indeed, the numbers are troubling. Results show that Bevin captured 52.5%, while the Democratic challenger Jack Conway came in at 43.8%. This appears like a pretty resounding mandate, until you consider that voter turnout was 30.7%, which is abysmally low.

It's also worth noting that their are more registered Democrats in Kentucky than Republicans, meaning that lower turnout benefits conservatives -- as it does in much of the country. It's sad for the Republican Party that suppressed voter turnout is its best ally, but arguably even sadder for the Democratic Party that its constituents can't be bothered to vote.

Low voter turnout is a national problem, and there are several proposal to correct it: make voter registration automatic rather than an opt-in process, expand early voting, move Election Day to the weekend, etc.

I agree that voter registration should be automatic. A recent Census Bureau report estimates that a little over 35% of eligible voters are not registered. Still, expanded registration won't truly solve the problem as fewer than half of registered voters bother to vote in non-presidential election years.

Convenience could be a factor. Expanding early voting would likely help, though I'm skeptical about moving elections to the weekend: Would Americans be more likely to take time out of an off day than a work day? Perhaps a better solution may be to develop a system voters might cast their ballots at any polling station. After all, it's not 1850. Many Americans don't live and work in the same proximity that they once did, and voting at a polling place closer to work might help boost turnout.

But still, that doesn't fix the apathy. Part of the problem is that Americans are uninterested and ignorant of political issues and processes. Voters perceive national, and in particular presidential, elections to be most important because they involve higher offices; voter turnout supports this assumption. Presumably, they see the stakes as higher and they show up.

But this is democracy, dumb ass! The stakes are always high. State and local elections are just as important -- and arguably more so -- than national elections. Meaningful change happens at these levels and voters have enhanced influence. Mathematically, your vote has more meaning because the pool of voters is smaller and the ridiculousness of an electoral college is a nonfactor. Not to mention the fact that you may actually have real access to and influence over the candidate.

Indeed, local politics may be the last bastion of representative democracy left in America. The U.S. Congress now has more millionaires than non-millionaires. In what way are these people our peers? In state and local elections, there at least remains the hope of true citizen governance, where intelligent and civic minded people can serve without being independently rich or owned by moneyed interests.

Until citizens understand the importance of civic engagement -- at all levels -- all other efforts will be half-measures at best. Wake up, America. Let 'em know you're there.


  1. I think one reason so many opted out of voting this time is the candidates sucked. You had to hold your nose to vote. We need better candidates. People we can get excited about.

    1. I understand that complaint. I'd like to see all ballots include a box called "no confidence." I'd be interested to see how many people would go to the polls and say the choices for the position are terrible. It would be a step above not voting because it would signal to candidates that there are people engaged in the political process who are at least potential voters.

  2. What if the no confidence votes continued against them. If they were beaten by no confidence they would then be disqualified and new candidates would run for a second election?

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