June 25, 2014

Commentary: Where have all the voters gone?

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Voting down sign

This is part of a column that will appear in the July issue of The Business Monthly out next Tuesday.

By Len Lazarick

Len@MarylandReporter.com

Where have all the voters gone?

There was lots of handwringing about the low voter turnout in Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary, and a lot of explanations offered.

People went on vacation, some said. I didn’t know the last week in June was such a popular vacation time.

Voters were surprised that there was a June primary. Obviously, if you’re reading this column or any local news, watching local TV news or listening to the radio, you wouldn’t have been surprised.

If you’re a registered Democrat or Republican, all those mailers from candidates should have been a clue. Or did you just throw them in the pile with the coupon fliers and Bed Bath & Beyond post cards?

The excuses abound. Politicos said people are used to a September primary and were surprised it was in June, a date selected to comply with a federal requirement to allow time for overseas and military voting.

So every four years people are saying to themselves “Hey, we’re choosing a governor, a legislature, and a slew of county officials. Is it September yet?” I doubt it.

Many explanations for voter apathy

Let’s concede that some or all these things contribute to voter turnout. To counteract this trend, Maryland instituted early voting four years ago. Studies have shown that this actually does not increase voter turnout, and may actually diminish it by spreading out the media hype, the get-out-the-vote efforts, and the general civic excitement of Election Day. Columnist Barry Rascovar pointed that out Monday.

Try a different explanation on for size.

Maybe the problem is not with the consumers, but with the products voters are being offered. Clearly some people don’t vote because they don’t like the candidates or the parties that produce them. Some people are angry.

If someone is not coming to your store or your website to purchase your goods, your first thought is probably not “what’s wrong with these people?” but “what’s wrong with my products?” or my location or my whatever?

What I’m suggesting is that voters don’t show up at the polls just because they’re lazy or forgetful or distracted by other obligations — some are — but because they don’t like the choices and are disengaged from the process. That’s a kind of disconnect that even something like online voting and voting by mail will not cure.

Let everyone vote in primaries

I don’t have a quick fix for our political malaise. A recent Pew Center study showed increasing political polarization, with the far right and far left becoming larger and more extreme.

One easy solution in Maryland would be to stop shutting out 660,000 “unaffiliated” registered voters — independents — from the party primaries. Partisans say they don’t want these folks influencing the purity of their nomination process, the way they may have in Virginia in the loss of U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Virginia has an “open” primary, as opposed to the closed primary in Maryland, where independents can only vote for nonpartisan school board members.

That’s fine, but why should all these independents and unregistered voters pay for a partisan nominating process? Let the Democratic and Republican parties cough up the dough for their own exclusionary selection methods.

If we’re going to wind up with a Democratic governor most of the time, let everybody help choose which Democrat that might be, not just 12% of the registered voters (about 10% of those 18 and over eligible to vote) as happened Tuesday, and pretend that “the people” have spoken.