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Low Turnout, Voter Fatigue, and Patchwork Primaries

by Patrick Withers // Published June 10, 2010
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     On June 8, in what was termed by some pundits the latest “Super Tuesday” of primary elections, voters in eleven states across the country went to the polls to vote in primaries and runoffs for over thirty-five state-wide offices.  In many ways, the superlative was well-earned; a “super” amount of money was spent in these races and each candidate took the opportunity to say repeatedly the “super” important reasons why they, and not their opponents, are best-suited to win the general election in the fall.
     However, if there was one way in which the day fell flat, it was in voter turnout.  In most of the races across the country, all the evidence points to abysmally low turnout numbers.  While most of the official statistics are not yet released, those that have are not heartening.  For example, according to the Virginia State Board of Elections’ unofficial results, none of the state’s five Republican House primaries had voter turnouts that broke into the double digits.  From California to Iowa, voter turnout (or lack thereof) could be described using many words; however, none of them are “super.”
     Anyone familiar with the history of elections in the United States should not be surprised by this outcome.  Indeed, it has been the open secret of recent American democracy for quite some time that most eligible voters often simply do not show up for primaries.  While trying to make some sense of this for myself, I stumbled across a short piece written about the primary in South Carolina.  The author of the piece quotes the head of voter services for Aiken County, South Carolina saying, “I think other people just really don't pay attention to the issues until the fall, several weeks before the election.” 
    While never having thought that much about it, I sense that this local county official is correct.  Indeed, every year the campaign season seems to stretch further into the summer months, a time when most people are more focused on palm trees than polling trends.  The days of politics being on hold for the summer seem to be long gone as the era of the 24-hour news cycle seems to bring with it the era of the 24-7 political campaign. This situation has the effect, I would suspect, of creating a great deal of political fatigue and apathy in all but the most intensely ideological of voters. 
    It seems to me that Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) could do a great deal to lessen this fatigue on voters and, in doing so, increase participation and strengthen our democracy.  The main purpose of IRV is to capture what can often be a dizzying collage of primaries, general elections, and runoffs in one snapshot representing a voter’s preferences.  While it would be nice for America to be made up entirely of Plato’s “philosopher-kings,” there comes a point when every polity needs to be honest about itself and its constituents.  Most people’s lives are simply too busy and chaotic, especially in this time of economic headache, to be perpetually engaged in the constant he-said-she-said wrestling match that is modern politics. 
    With such long races, people simply do not vote in primaries, saying that they will “get their chance” once the candidate is chosen.  The problem with this, however, is that many general voters dislike the candidates the political duopoly has chosen for them and, faced with what John Spencer’s character in The West Wing famously characterized as “the lesser of ‘who cares?’,” they do not vote.  A more widespread shift to IRV could go a long way in condensing this cycle and, in so doing, refreshing voters who are wearied by politics as they are now.  This would do wonders to energize our democracy and make every Election Day a truly “super” Tuesday.