21 April 2011

Voter apathy - why don't we care?

It was a cool late Friday night in early spring.  A group of volunteers was busy labeling fliers for the final targeted literature drops before the Tuesday election.  For the most part the volunteers and paid employees were enthusiastic about the race.  The overall feeling was that voter turnout would be high and that fact would work in favor of their candidate.  "I definitely think we have the momentum," explained the campaign coordinator, "You know the whole thing with Walker is giving us a huge boost."  The fliers showed a picture of Jeff Stone standing seductively near a lecturing Scott Walker.  It had a simple equation "Stone = Walker".

The first Tuesday of April was fast approaching and volunteers were clamoring to get organized.  The polls were gearing up for what had the looks of possible record turnouts.  On Wednesday, the headlines reported those record turnouts at the polls. "Tuesday's Supreme Court turnout in Wisconsin was off the charts", "Huge voter turnout in Spring election," etc.

33% of eligible voters got out the vote on April 5th.  The ecstatic media proudly reported that 1 in 3 eligible voters showed up at a polling station to cast his/her ballot.  While on the surface it may not seem to be a large percentage of eligible voters, bear in mind that the average turnout for a spring election is around 18-20%.  “It was uncommon, it was an extraordinary event,” said Maurice Sheppard, a political science instructor at MATC.

How were so many voters primed to get to the polls? Wisconsin was in the midst of huge protests against a divisive Governor and republican run legislature that had already passed a controversial tort reform bill and had recently passed a bill stripping public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights.  On the ballot were candidates in a very heated Supreme court race fueled by outside groups linking David Prosser to the controversial Governor.  It seemed that the arena was ripe for massive crowds, which in a way is what showed up.  But massive is a relative concept.

In the winter of 2010, the congressional midterm elections triggered turnouts nearing 50% (48.51% to be more accurate).  Again, the press and many pollsters praised the high turnouts for a non-presidential election.  But "high", "huge", "massive", or any other adjectives are relative quantifiers.

While voter turnout raged in Wisconsin, in parts of Missouri Kristin Hoppa reported that voter turnout spiked at about 10%.  Gary Colvin, supervisory Republican election judge at Ashland, said he expected more voters. He said at the last election, the church averaged about 100 voters an hour.

"We are averaging about 20 an hour," Mr. Colvin said about noon. "It's voter apathy.

In comparison with the US turnout, keeping our focus in the Americas, Anguilla held elections for 7 parliamentary seats in 2010; over 80% of eligible voters voted.  In Bolivia, in 2009, 90% turned out to vote on a referendum on the size of the constitutional limit on individual private landholdings, to be included in the new constitution, if ratified.  Suddenly the high turnout in the US elections becomes puny.  And while many voices applauded the "high" percentage of  votes cast, not many voices decried the actually quite abysmally low numbers. 

In Canada, turnout has hovered around 60% for the last five elections and then dropped to 58% in 2008.  The percentage drop has raised serious concerns regarding the perceived level of voter apathy and has caused the government to create a comprehensive website designed to encourage university students to vote in the upcoming federal election. (see itsyourvote.ca)

After comparing international voter turnouts, statistics rank the US as one of the lowest of industrial nations (see International Foundation for Electoral Systems).  Whereas many in the US would not be surprised by these conclusions, it should be surprising that not much is being done to try to elevate the numbers of participants.

Voter apathy occurs when citizens believe their votes don't count, it won't matter anyway, nothing will change so there is no reason to vote.  Why is there such a high level of voter apathy in the US and such little concern about raising the numbers of participants and relieving disbelief in our democratic process?

In 2008, Tony Dokoupil was interested in discovering why so few male voters turned out.  The Case of the Vanishing Male Voter explores why male voters have been turning out in fewer numbers in elections recent to 2008.  Dokoupil reported that since 1964, the percentage of men voting has dropped from 72% to 56%.  The article claims that high female voter turnout and low male turnout helped to elect former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Reasons cited include the fact that men tend to be more isolated, a shift in which educated women outnumber educated men, and a higher rate of male criminals who are barred from voting.  Of the 5.3 million convicted felons in the US, more than 80% are males. 

The article illustrated reasons for lower male turnouts and higher frustration with voting policy. These conditions could lead to higher voter apathy. While higher incarceration rates accounts for smaller numbers of voters, is it directly related to voter apathy?  Much like the stock market, voting apathy can be affected by seemingly insignificant factors.  Losing a parent or spouse to the prison system can cause depression and condemnation of the entire system as being unfair. 

In An Exploration of the Effects of Negative Political Advertising on Political Decision Making, Bruce E. Pinkleton, Nam-Hyun Um, and Erica Weintraub Austin conducted a study with 236 students who were exposed to different types of advertising.  "Participants exposed to negative advertising found it less useful for political decision making and were more negative toward political campaigns than were participants exposed to positive advertising."  Although the study showed a correlation between negative advertising and levels of disgust with political campaigning, the study did not conclude that negative advertising would lead directly to "citizen apathy."

So, what causes someone to consciously choose not to exercise his/her right to vote?  Why do so many who can vote choose not to?  It has been argued by many that people are only motivated by their own welfare and comfort.  Chris Hayes has argued that greed, envy, and corruption shattered our financial system.  Could this possibly be a cause of such rampant voter apathy as well?

When the tort reform bill passed in Wisconsin very few eyebrows were raised by liberals, progressives, or centrists or any Wisconsinites.  When collective bargaining was put on the chopping block, protests erupted.  The tort reform is far more reaching and may prove to be far more detrimental in the future to employees and citizens than the budget repair bill.  The tort reform affects everyone but not immediately - cases will arise.  The budget repair bill affects people immediately.  As soon as people felt their interests threatened, people became motivated to act.

Is there a way to clearly align voter's interests with election results and voting whenever an election is held?  What's mildly surprising is that there is not a lot written about voter apathy's causes.  Maybe journalists and politicians don't care if more people are involved in the process; if so, this would more than likely be due to electoral bias and apathy.  What's also interesting is that the US gets high numbers of voters for presidential elections but very low turnout for local elections - the local elections carry a greater impact on our daily lives but are not as sensationalized.

My hypothesis is that there is a connection between voter apathy and television.  So much of the information spreading through the glowing box is designed to numb our senses, sell sensationalized bits of data, and make us feel like inadequate consumers unless we buy something.  There must be some consequences to the abundance of entertainment we are exposed to.  One repercussion is a general sense of apathy.  News broadcasts inform us that polls reveal the race to be close or not close at all.  Either way one vote, goes the reasoning, won't matter.  In broad national elections, it's hard to pinpoint one vote.  But, in local elections, one vote can determine the outcome.  And most of us know this and can walk through this chain of reasoning, but television provides an easy excuse to recline and let our minds wander effortlessly.  The idea of going to a polling station becomes an overwhelming burden.

There are also indications that Americans don't know enough about candidates to feel reasonably comfortable enough to vote.  In the US television is the news source for most of the people.  But news programming is not designed to provide informative, in-depth candidate coverage on the issues.  PBS handles in-depth coverage better than any other channel but is still lacking.  In the last gubernatorial election, many Wisconsinites felt they had no idea what each candidate stood for.   

What do you think? Are you an apathetic citizen who chooses not to vote? Or do you have any suggestions on the causes of voter apathy?  How can we get more citizens to vote or be more involved?
Read more about voter apathy and voter turnout:

Case of the Vanishing Male Voter Dokoupil, Tony, Newsweek; 10/27/2008, Vol. 152 Issue 17, p14-14, 3/5p, 2 Color Photographs, 1 Graph

An Exploration of the Effects of Negative Political Advertising on Political Decision Making, Bruce E. Pinkleton, Nam-Hyun Um, and Erica Weintraub Austin Journal of Advertising Spring 2002



System Failure: It's Not Just the Media -- the Whole Political System Has Failed; David Miller


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