REPEAT PERFORMANCE

There are many institutional features, some entirely unique to the United States, that contribute to our abysmally low voter turnout. That low turnout is in turn a contributor to the election outcomes we live with. Two overlooked factors that help explain Tuesday's smattering of races across the country are the frequency of elections and the length of our campaign/election seasons. By a substantial margin, Americans are asked to come out to vote more regularly than citizens of any other democratic country. We have elections at the drop of a hat, thanks in part to our federal system in which statewide, local, and Federal offices are staggered and elected in different years depending on the state. General elections, municipal elections, recall elections, special elections to fill vacancies, runoff elections in majority-requirement jurisdictions, primary elections…the average American is asked to come out and vote several times per year. For an act in which most people are not especially interested or enthusiastic this is an effective death sentence. We barely care enough to vote in "major" elections like a presidential race or a midterm congressional election. By the time we get down to local and primary elections we're looking at turnout in the single digits of eligible voters in many places. When turnout is that low you know exactly what the electorate looks like: old, white, and cranky. And this is not unreasonable; who else but old, cantankerous white people have the time or inclination to pay a lot of attention to the Pigsknuckle County Board races? That hot race for Sanitation District Commission Seat 3B? That barn-burner of a school board contest?

Unfortunately these things, while not terribly interesting to most of us, are important. And we're usually too sick of politics to give them much thought when their turn comes.

The length of our campaigns is similarly fatiguing. The 2016 presidential race has been going on for roughly 3 months already, and the informal jockeying for even longer. We're already three months into an election campaign that culminates next November and we expect people to pay attention to and participate meaningfully in the 2015 elections – elections that most people don't even know exist? I am the first to revel in the joys of dumping on the civic capacities of the Average* American, but when it comes to the costs of voting and sheer fatigue I think we have a legitimate gripe. No other nation asks or expects people to pay attention to what has become one endless campaign cycle with regular exhortations to Get Out the Vote. I get paid to talk about American politics and even I get sick of the lack of ability to come up for air in this process. The nine-month long 2014 campaign barely ended before, after a break of a few months of unproductive Governing, states with 2015 races were flogging voters again. And the 2016 race didn't even wait until 2015 was over to not only begin but to reach the breaking point of sanity and overexposure.

This is the dilemma. Nobody is going to vote this often and pay this much attention to such a vast number of different elected offices and ballot issues unless their life consists literally of nothing but sitting in front of Fox News 24-7 and obsessively harassing the local newspaper's unpaid editorial intern. There are people who fit that description. And we really, really don't want them making our decisions for us. That is exactly what happens and will continue to happen in practice, though, since no amount of shaming or appeals to conscience will convince people with lives, shit jobs, family obligations, and a need to occasionally stop watching the news to preserve their mental health to vote this many times and consume this much OMG Election!!11!! stuff. It's like that fifth Red Bull of the day, the one at which your adrenal glands can be flogged no further and your body simply shuts down with fatigue and overstimulation.

It makes sense. It sucks that a lot of you didn't vote yesterday. It hardly makes you a bad person, though. It makes you a normal human being who has a limit, a limit that has been reached.

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30 thoughts on “REPEAT PERFORMANCE”

  • 538 just published an article arguing that Democrats are actually MORE responsible than Republicans for staggered voting. This is a function of two factors: teachers' unions are a significant Democratic interest group with significant pull in their localities; and school board/district elections constitute a huge number of the staggered local elections. Teachers' unions prefer elections with low turnout that don't coincide with broader-ticket concerns, because their local power is dwarfed by the power of interest groups at the national level. I take it that this claim is true for just about any interest group that has any kind of local-level authority (see: the Houston defeat of protections for LGBT rights). The difference for teachers' unions is that every school district in the country has elections, and in those elections the teachers' union is almost always the most power interest group. The end result is Democratic support for staggered elections in all of these local (and even state-level) education elections, the combined effect of which makes Democrats the de facto defender of the staggered election process across the country. It's a net negative for Democrats, in that it screws them in all but education-related voting, and contributes to the sort of voter fatigue Ed is talking about.

  • Only on G&T will you get a precise specification of what 'average' is supposed to mean (see what I did there?).

  • I have to simplify, which can lead to misjudgment, I just remember that bad things happen when folks vote Republican. This might change, if anything survives the end game of Nixon's southern strategy, which has turned the GOP into "John Birch @ Ku Klux Klan". For amusement, think a moment about how different the GOP would've been without TR's bull moose exodus of 1912.

  • Activists.
    In this case, it's local school board activists who help themselves while harming their cause on the larger stage.
    In the general case, they see it as their duty to make election results meaningless.

    Remember when Botch wanted to privatize Social Security? People believed:
    1. That that was not true and
    2. That it would fail even if it were true.
    People were right.
    No matter how an election goes, Mr. J.S. Average can be pretty sure that it won't affect him. The election promises are mostly lies and the activists on both sides will work on the details so that very little will happen.

    The result is that some people can claim that the political parties are both on the same side, that they're all corrupt and/or that voting is for suckers. The truth may be different, but as a PRACTICAL matter, all those claims are true.
    So voting has become a matter of tribal identification.

    Sanders can talk about single payer all he wants, we all know that Republican activists will block it in the hearings and organizational meetings.
    Trump can paint pretty pictures of walls and deportation railroads but we all know that ain't gonna happen.

    I hear hordes of Kentucky Medicaid and ACA recipients voted to cut their own benefits. Were they right that it won't matter, or were they too meta this time?

  • I didn't vote yesterday… but I voted a month ago. Raleigh, NC stands at a pivotal juncture; our state General Assembly reigns as the lowest common denominator in American politics. This body is attempting to sabotage all elements of local governance (at the county/city level) while gutting all other forms of meaningful state services (transportation, education, etc.)

    I offer the following caveats as to why most of my friends and neighbors (statistically 9/10ths) did not bother to show up:

    The election wasn't held the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. It was held in October? Why? Beats the fuck out of me?

    When the democrats were in charge, we had a lot of early voting opportunities. In our current dystopian future hellscape, early voting was only presented the following options:

    * Monday-Friday 9-5 p.m. (very convenient for working stiffs like me who commute 2 hours a day; did I mention the NC GOP siphons off my local taxes to pay for infrastructure in declining heavily Republican rural counties?)

    * 1 Saturday was available, from 10-1 p.m. Saturday in question being the same day as the IBMA Bluegrass festival, which in years past had a turn-out of over 100,000 people. Oh, and that festival WAS LITERALLY DIRECTLY ACROSS THE STREET FROM THE OPEN POLLING STATION.

    Thanks to the support of my wife who took care of our baby while I went to vote at 6:30 that morning, I was able to vote, but alter any variable in my life and I'd be among the 400,000 people who couldn't/didn't.

    Several seats were decided by a few hundred ballots. We had some interesting candidates that appealed to younger voters. Of course, both the local major rag and the free press were quick to point out that the younger voters were apathetic. Yeah, well, perhaps the kids had to go out and earn a living.

    Kudos to Ed for not partaking in the 'you bad citizen you' narrative. It's horseshit. Of course, last months experience precedes the extra delays and hurdles to be imposed on the NC electorate when the ID law comes into effect.

  • Once you realize that we live in a coporate dictatorship, and that elections are just a sham to give us the illusion that we are in a democracy and that we have some control, it all becomes easier.

    Once all the "debates" are over, the rallies are history, the attack ads are put back on the shelf, the media moguls have counted all their money, and the yard signs are taken down, we will end up with "leaders" who are front men/women for the corporatocracy. You aren't allowed to vote for anyone who isn't.

    And if someone who isn't bought and paid for happens to win — well, Bill Hicks explains what happens:

    http://youtu.be/Ytv15ono5J0

  • You forgot to mention the sheer number of offices, issues, referenda, and propositions that appear on any given ballot. Many vote straight party line for political offices because, after all, who knows much about any of these candidates beside incumbents? And why are we asked to vote for judges and county sheriff and water board and school board, as though competence in any of those jobs is a function of campaigning or party affiliation?

  • About 50 years ago I remember hearing some right-wing TV pundit being interviewed for his views on a particular election saying: "Don't vote." It wasn't a stupid thing to say for those of his ilk. This kind of reinforcement isn't necessary today. It's too hard to vote anyway.

    I'm pretty cranky too when I'm stuck listening to what are loosely called debates years in advance by Republican embarrassments. I guess they're stuck with them too since critical thinkers don't get on their ballot. No coastal candidates allowed. Boredom and low turnout works.

    Boredom is great though for local municipal elections. The quieter and dumber candidates slide into office every November under the radar. The only noise they make is at church and dull town meetings to make sure things stay uninteresting and voting nothing to brag about. Only at election time do rare local voters wonder who are those people on campaign signs. It can take a little digging.

    Cable news creates encouraged primary election over-exposure. Good ideas by sane candidates are dull and no way to sell erectile dysfunction drugs. The worst ideas by the worst loud candidates are good for business.

    I miss the old voting machines. If nothing else there was a kind of satisfaction slamming down a little lever against a hated politician. It even made some noise. It's a pretty dry thing today. I have to vote though. Too many polling place workers know me and I'd not hear the end of it by missing out.

  • Cranky old white voter says:

    We have mail in voting out here on the left coast. Best thing about it–I know there is an election coming up when I get the ballot in the mail.
    And, being one of the rare states with all Democrats in statewide offices and a majority in the legislature, we just changed our motor-voter registration system to an opt-out system (if you don't want to be automatically registered when you get your driver's license, you have to take action).

  • Tangled up in red says:

    Republican Utah also has mail in voting and in this recent election "turnout" hit nearly 50%. I don't know that results are any better but I do know having the ballot in front of me over several days leads me to carefully consider and &gasp& research any items I am unfamiliar with.

    Electronic voting would be an improvement but I'll take mail-in for now.

  • 538 just published an article arguing that Democrats are actually MORE responsible than Republicans for staggered voting. This is a function of two factors: teachers' unions are a significant Democratic interest group with significant pull in their localities;

    Oh ha ha, as if. Nate Silver is smart enough to know better.

  • It took me WAY longer than it should have to find information online about what was on the ballot in Williamson County, Texas.

    Since we live in a VERY Republican district our polling locations are conveniently located and open until 7:00pm. Go figure.

    There was some momentary confusion by the clerk when she noted that my voter registration shows my middle name, but my conceal carry license did not. It was so nit-picky and stupid that the poor woman seemed embarrassed that she had to flag me. (No, I'm not stupid enough to carry a gun anywhere with me. As a veteran, I got the license to see firsthand what the requirements were for it. Answer: Appallingly little.)

    My husband and I are middle-aged, turbo liberal, techno-hippies. We were easily the only people there under the age of 50.

  • Tangled, as a Utah voter living in DC I was shocked at how easy both the absentee sign-up and mail voting processes were. I was prepared for a much more onerous process to prove I wasn't some kind of illegal Messican, a la the DMV. Always nice when Utah gets something right to make up for that whole Jason Chaffetz thing.

  • Whoa, wait, Leslee–you mean to say in TX you have to show a concealed carry license to vote? Yowza.

    Nick: My guess isUtah makes absentee voting easier because of all the missionaries.

    And finally, cackalacka, I think New Mexico might be tied with NC as the lowest common denominator in American politics. Although we are such a banana republic that I don't think we even qualify as having American politics.

  • No, I disagree. Not voting DOES make you a bad person.

    I was raised by people who drilled into us that as citizens of the United States we have THREE and only 3 obligations: pay your taxes, vote, and serve on a jury when called.

    Those are the ONLY things this country asks of us. Do we have mandatory military service? No we do not.

    Do we have mandatory volunteer service? No we do not. Does this country demand that you get a job? No it does not. Does this country require you to get married, have a family, join a church, procreate, or anything else? NO IT DOES NOT.

    This country demands incredibly little of us. If you can't do those THREE simple things then you are a lazy fuck who doesn't deserve to live here.

  • SB

    Additionally, US males are required to register for Selective Service. I'm old enough to remember the potentially life-changing consequences of this particular obligation.

  • @Southern Beale
    I voted, and not voting would have had zero effect on anything. Out of four offices on the ballot in my ward, exactly one wasn't uncontested. That one was an incumbent running against two write-in candidates, so calling it "contested" is overstating things more than a bit.

  • Voting by mail is so nice. I can do it when I want and when I have time. I can do it next to my computer so I can look up important issues, or I can do it at an election party with my friends so we can debate issues.

    Top two primary is also nice. It means that the final election still means something and is usually still contested, even in heavily partisan districts. Nearly all of our council and legislature elections have been contested since we adopted it.

    That 538 article is a crock, but we should consolidate elections and expand vote by mail.

  • Gerald McGrew says:

    Yeah, vote-by-mail is the way to go. You get your ballot early, take the time to look into each candidate/issue, and drop it off at the library or in your mailbox.

    It's interesting to see the stereotype of the off-year election voter…old, white, conservative. While true, it's representative of a bigger problem with progressive politics. Psychological studies have shown that conservatives place a very high value on loyalty, whereas liberals place a higher value on accuracy/objectivity. That explains why conservatives do well in off-year elections. Their base has a natural sense of duty to the party, and will show up out of pure loyalty. And the old, white part? Well, that's just their base.

    Liberals OTOH aren't nearly as loyal, and as such won't turn out and vote just out of a sense of duty. Something else has to motivate them, such as an inspirational candidate like Obama. Also, the Democrat base is heavily made up of historically low-turnout populations (minorities, youth).

    Put that all together, throw in the sheer numbers of the Baby Boomers, and you end up with what we have today….a Republican Party that is completely crazy but continues to dominate elections, and a Democratic Party that struggles to find a way to motivate its base.

    Get used to it folks. I don't see this turning around any time soon.

  • Skipper, re: "Bill Hicks Explains the U.S. Presidency" — I have a theory that the real story of GWB's "pretzel" incident was that he had successfully been cheeking his meds for a while, finally achieved a moment of clarity, and tried to make a break for it. Of course he was unsuccessful in escaping.

  • Even though I'm often presented a ballot filled with all Republicans (many running unopposed..) if there are two going for a seat I read their bios and vote for the less-wacko. If they run unopposed, I don't vote for them.

  • Jest: "..activists on both sides" "..we all know.." Possibly you are correct in your assertions about the "practical matter" effects of voting vs. "the truth" (although I'm not ashamed to say that I don't follow your line of reasoning), but your use of those phrases sets off some warning sirens and lights, as those are phrases commonly used as rationalizations by people who just don't want to be bothered to vote and need to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the inevitable bad results. When you let your government be run by passionate lunatics, you are responsible for the outcome, no matter what you choose to tell yourself. Me, I've found as a rule that anything "everybody knows" is wrong, and often not just wrong, but the very opposite of correct. As for "both sides", that's the common misdirection phrasing used by conmen and other crooks to disguise the fact that the two sides involved are extremely different in certain ways. A lump of lead and a lump of gold are very similar in many ways, but they aren't equivalent as retirement investments.

  • HelloRochester says:

    It dawned on me as I was voting for the 5th or 6th time since I changed towns that 20% of the population of my microscopic majority-Mennonite Pennsylvania town votes at one of the two polling places located in neighboring rooms inside a gigantic Mennonite retirement community. I can imagine the frothy reaction from the local GOP if the polls were located inside a large unionized factory or some leftist commune (I'm grasping at straws to come up with a concentrated population of solid Democrats who tend to vote). What the sh*t.

  • "Whoa, wait, Leslee–you mean to say in TX you have to show a concealed carry license to vote? Yowza."

    That's a helluva leap. I interpret it to mean that a concealed carry license is an acceptable form of ID for Texas voter registration. Everybody knows that Texas is a little, ahem, passionate about firepower, but do you honestly believe that the state **mandates** gun ownership?!?!

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