Well, the results for the August Primary are (mostly) in. In Des Moines, congratulations are in order for Matt Pina, Anthony Martinelli, Harry Steinmetz and Traci Buxton.
What concerns me is that the voter turnout in Des Moines was soooooooooo LOW–less than twenty percent. Now there are over 17,000 registered voters in Des Moines and yet only 3,000 actually bothered to mail in a ballot. That is a truly pitiful achievement. Some people will look at the results and think, “He who bought the most yard signs wins!” And that is partly true–the candidate who spends the most money usually does win. But that’s something of a red herring.
The unpleasant little secret of local politics is that, even if candidates did not spend any money on signs and ads and whatnot, you’d probably see the similar results because there tend to be two kinds of people in the world: The Voting People and The People Who Don’t Vote. The people who vote, always vote. And the people who don’t vote, rarely vote.
And why this state of affairs is a problem is because it almost always skews the results towards one particular type of candidate. In other words, those people who vote tend to have similar opinions in any given town and so you tend to get the same bias over and over.
The usual solution to this problem for candidates is to BUY MORE SIGNS! That is, spend more money than the other guy. That makes sense: more name recognition might equal more votes. Of course that also means that the candidate with the deepest pockets wins. But I’m not sure that’s entirely right because, as I said, the People Who Vote, tend to vote whether one has lots of signs or not. They already know who they’re going to vote for; they do their research.
Now, if you like the direction the city is going in, you may not worry about this too much. Because hey, if The People Who Don’t Vote don’t vote? Forget ’em, right? If they can’t be bothered, then that’s their problem. But I would suggest that regardless of your personal views, you should be concerned. It is simply un-democratic and un-American to have such small turnouts over and over because you get results that don’t reflect the will of all the people. And that matters to me. If I win in November, I’d like to think it was because it was because the majority of voters wanted me in–not just twenty percent of the voters.
In the past, one would say that it’s up to each candidate to promote voter turnout. But ironically, that’s getting harder to do with mail-in voting. Also, let’s face it: there is a growing apathy among the electorate; the sense that your vote doesn’t matter. But think about it: voting couldn’t be much easier now, right? You don’t have to take time off of work. There’s no schlepping to the polls. If you know who you want to vote for all you have to do is take or or two minutes to fill out the form and drop it in the mail. So if people can’t do something that easy, there is a real problem.
In fact, I think the problem of low voter turnout is now so severe that we should consider taking active steps at the city, county and state levels to turn it around. There needs to be a bit more active encouragement (or ‘nagging’ if you will) to get people to learn about the candidates and then take those two minutes to get it done.
One idea I think we should borrow from other countries: Public service announcements on TV and radio and even text messaging–small periodic nags to get it done. This makes perfect sense to me in an age when so many of us now rely on reminders from our smartphones or computers to keep us on schedule. I am constantly seeing reminders on social media to attend various events and they actually do help me to stay on track. I wouldn’t mind an occasional nag on Facebook or Twitter to take a look at the ballot I left on the shelf.
I’m sure there are a number of other things we can do to improve voter turnout. But most of all, I’m sure that we need to do something, and soon, to increase voter participation. Because no elected official can honestly say they have a real mandate if it’s from less than twenty percent of eligible voters.