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Why Don’t People Vote ?

by @ 4:12 pm on June 15, 2006. Filed under 2006 Election, Politics, Virginia Politics

The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher asks, quite legitimately, whether Tuesday’s Virginia Senate primary really means anything given the fact that turnout was only 3%

Tuesday was a big day in Norton, Virginia’s smallest city, an old mining town in the state’s extreme southwest corner. Thousands of people — more than half the population — put aside their work and other obligations and came together to exercise their rights as free citizens.

Not to vote, though there was an election. Only 49 people in Norton bothered to cast a ballot for who will challenge Sen. George Allen this fall.

That was the lowest turnout of any jurisdiction in the commonwealth. Pretty much everyone else in this city of 4,000 was over at the Best Friend Festival, a week-long celebration featuring bubble-gum-blowing, watermelon-seed-spitting and limbo contests. That evening, the festival drew 2,000 people to express their fundamental right to karaoke.

Election? “I heard nobody mention it,” says Joyce Payne, chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the annual festival. “I’m sure it was important to people who are very concerned about politics.” If you can find such a person.

Let’s leave aside Fisher’s slightly condescending tone. The fact that only 49 people in Norton voted is not, I think, a reflection of the political awareness of the voters there. It is merely an extreme example of something that manifested itself statewide; obviously, the people of Virginia didn’t think there was anything worth voting for on Tuesday.

Before we start worrying about the fall of American democracy, some perspective is in order. Primary elections, especially in non-Presidential years, traditionally have significantly lower turnout than General Elections. The reason is simplye primaries are intra-party battles that are usually of interest only to people who are politically active in a particular party. For the rest of Virginia, there really isn’t any reason to invest much time getting involved in a battle that doesn’t concern you. For me, the question of voting or not voting in a primary is easy to answer; I am not a Democrat and, even though Virginia has open primaries, I don’t see the need for me to get involved in deciding who the Democratic Party of Virginia picks as its nominee. Especially since the odds are fairly good that I wouldn’t vote for whoever they nominate in the General Election anyway. Since most Virginia voters, like most American voters, are not active in either major party, its not surprising that they would be little if any attention to a partisan primary.

The other thing to consider is that this race flew completely under the radar. Even here in Northern Virginia, it got very little coverage in the press and I can’t recall seeing a single television commerical for either candidate (George Allen, on the other hand, has been running commericals here for about two weeks now). If the candidates didn’t care to make voters aware of their positions, then its no surprise that the voters didn’t care to vote.

In fact, as Fisher notes, there really is only one place where the Senate primary was a topic of discussion on almost a daily basis, the blogosphere:

The Senate race drew a slightly better turnout on the two candidates’ home turf of Fairfax County; in fact, Nothern Virginia accounted for more than 40 percent of the votes on Tuesday, which indicates the increasing influence of political bloggers in races with low turnouts. The only place on the planet where this election was a really exciting big deal was on the blogs that live and breathe Virginia politics, and their enthusiasm was a significant contributor to the somewhat better turnout in broadband-rich Northern Virginia.

“No question about it, the bloggers were driving this,” says Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, the Roanoke-based backcountry strategist who is helping guide Webb’s campaign and who was the mastermind behind Connecticut-born Mark Warner’s embrace of NASCAR culture in his run for governor five years ago.

Having contact with the blogs is smart for any campaign, but its not going to win in an election. In fact, given the low turnout, one wonders if Webb’s entire strategy can work:

Webb’s strategy is based on the notion that there’s a deep well of discontent that need only be tapped to dislodge Allen from his seat.

And in places such as Norton, it’s hard to see much in the way of the anger and frustration that lead people to engage in politics.

When I reeled off the big issues in the Senate race to Joyce Payne, she was quick to say, “None of that is what’s on people’s minds here this week. This is just a time of fun and relaxation. Sometimes you have to just chill and relax; people in Washington should try that. Really, it’ll lengthen your life.”

Sounds like good advice to me.

Linked with Outside the Beltway and Mudville Gazette

2 Responses to “Why Don’t People Vote ?”

  1. KipEsquire says:

    This is also an issue in ballot initiatives. Is it fair to say that “73% of the votes cast were in favor of banning gay marriage” when only 24% of the electorate actually voted?

  2. [...] As I’ve said before, there are many reasons that people don’t vote, not all of them bad. If I’m faced with a choice between two bad candidates in a particular election and I don’t want to vote for either of them, then there’s no reason for me to vote. Frankly, a lottery wouldn’t encourage me to come vote in a situation like that unless I could vote for “None Of The Above” and actually impact the race. It would, though, encourage people who don’t pay attention to politics but who do believe that putting money down on the lottery every week is an investment plan. And that isn’t necessarily a good thing: ?Bribing people to vote is a superficial approach that will have no beneficial outcome to the process, except to make some people feel good that the turnout numbers are higher,? said an editorial in The Yuma Sun. ?But higher numbers do not necessarily mean a better outcome.? [...]

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