Voter turnout: what’s wrong with that?

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Pennsylvania was working hard to be the first but courtesy of Governor George Bush’s staff, Kansas actually took the honors.  In a highly calibrated press release the Republican Presidential candidate thanked the voters of Kansas for electing him in their primary.  Unfortunately the election in Kansas had been canceled and nobody told a weary Bush staff writer so Kansas got the honor of holding the first election in American history where nobody came out to vote.

But the Keystone State ran a close second last week on Primary Tuesday.  Across the state on that windy, cold April day about 80% of the voters stayed home.  In the only statewide race that registered a blip, the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, winner Ron Klink captured 42% of the Democrats that turned out.  But on average that was 40% of 21% of Democratic voters.  Bottom line is that about 9% of Democrats statewide actually voted for Klink, hardly the landslide that his supporters made it out to be.

     Pundits and politicians across the state bemoaned the boredom of the turn out debacle.  The conventional wisdom was captured by Montgomery County Commissioner Jim Matthews who called the turnout pathetic.  “Voters think the opposite way than they should” he said, “the most important races are local races but the voters will only come out in a presidential election when their votes count the least.”

     Matthews is right, to a point.  But what is likely to happen as the made for TV drama of Bush v. Gore unfolds is voters will come out and throw away their votes affecting local races.  Those 80% whose imaginations are captured by the historical mythology that by electing the President of the United States they are somehow affecting their destiny yet stay home in so-called off-year elections because the Township Sewer Bond referendum doesn’t have quite the same cache.  And if the last 8 years have proven anything, it’s that Washington will maintain its relevance by maintaining its hand in our wallets to the tune of a 1/3 of our earnings.  And if that isn’t true how come the President who would re-invent government for the last 8 years and the Congress that was supposed to revolutionize its relevance in 1994 haven’t changed much of anything, except much how they get paid?

     A Commonwealth Foundation/Lincoln Institute poll of Pennsylvania’s voters the week before the primary indicated that 31% of voters would be more likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by a labor union, 29% would be influenced by a political party endorsement, 22% would their vote based on the influence of a business group and the elite voters were a mere 14% who would be more likely to vote for a candidate based on a newspaper’s endorsement.

     Numbers across the board that average out for whatever reason that about 24% of the voters have some idea of what’s going on.  It’s easy to pigeon hole them as special interests, but special interests beat no interests on any election day.  Wherever they get a clue about who to vote for, labor, business, single issues or party ideology, our democracy is vastly better served by them than when hordes stumble into voting booths, vote for President of the United States based on the last TV attack ad that they saw and then starts punching buttons for everything from Governor to Township Supervisor with the same serious logic used in buying an instant lottery ticket.  It’s cheap, so do you really care if you win?

     20% voter turn out is undoubtedly pathetic but it’s unlikely that there will ever be an election held in Pennsylvania and nobody will come.  And as long as the others hide away for 4 years and then turn out to be a part of history, with little or no relevance to their daily lives who needs the other 80%?  Let’s hope they stay at home.  The 20% seem pretty steady, and if they should waiver someday the 14% influenced by newspapers will stand committed to voting and we will rule and what’s wrong with that?