It’s time to fix low voter turnoutPublished May 29, 2013 at 10:28 am (Updated May 29, 2013 at 10:25 am)
Last Tuesday’s voter turnout in Allegheny County primary election was 18.6 percent of registered voters, slightly less than the 20.2 percent in the off-year election two years ago. This fall, it will be very little higher. While low turnout in off-year elections is a well-known fact, I’m not sure voters appreciate its serious consequences.
Local county and municipal governments impact the lives of citizens every bit as much, if not more than, national and state government. Low voter turnout compromises democracy by ceding disproportionate political power to those more politically active among the electorate. Who are these people? They are members of the political establishment or groups with vested special interests, often personal financial interests. Typically, they represent views further from the center of the political spectrum. Low primary turnout frequently deters worthy candidates from even running for office.
Conventional wisdom attributes this situation to voter apathy, often going further to charge non-participating voters with some degree of civic irresponsibility. I disagree. Voter turnout in the 2012 general election was 68 percent in Allegheny County. Even in the off-congressional year 2010, turnout was 48 percent. In the 2008 general, it was 69 percent, and voter registration is typically five to seven percent higher in presidential years. What has happened in the last year to cause nearly 50 percent of registered voters to suddenly become apathetic and irresponsible? Nothing. The problem is the system, and it can be fixed.
We need to eliminate off-year elections. All elections, federal, state and local, (with the possible exception of special elections) should be held in congressional election years. Beyond the improvement in representative democracy and the legitimacy resulting from higher voter turnout, candidates and elected officials would have to appeal to a broader electorate. There would be less power to the politically connected and the special interests. Fewer elections might even stimulate voter interest and participation. Ultimately better government would result. And it would save money.
There are 1,318 precincts in Allegheny County. The elections department staffs each of these with three or four people, transports the voting machines to and from each polling place and incurs substantial direct administrative costs. I estimate this to cost at least half a million dollars per election, irrespective of voter turnout level.
Do not be misled. Elected officials, while giving lip service to higher voter turnout, do not want higher turnout other than for themselves. They will argue that voter attention to a presidential race would somehow dilute voter attention to a school board race. In truth, it is easier and less costly to target smaller constituencies and far easier to please special interests than the general public. Incumbents, especially, benefit from lower turnout. So change will come with much reticence but, call me an optimist, it can come. People today are fully time constrained in their daily lives. We need to make the process of electing our government officials more efficient for them and increase voter participation along the way.
Upper St. Clair