Sometimes increasing voter turnout is not a good thing
Today Victor Landa wrote a good column in the Express-News as a follow-up to last Saturday’s presentation of a Citizen’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilities presented by graduate students at UTSA’s College of Public Policy. He picked up on a suggestion made by Phyllis Ingram, head of San Antonio’s League of Women Voters, that to increase voter turnout we should consolidate the elections to a single day. On the surface, that sounds like a good and rational idea. After all, if you just went in one time to take care of all civic business more people would turn out to vote. Kind of a one-stop shop for civic engagement. Sounds simple but in reality, it’s more complex than it might seem. More importantly, would it really increase civic engagement or just produce better numbers?
If you were to take the concept at its basic tenets it would mean bringing in races for all the issues to one single day, say the first Tuesday in November. You’d vote for president, governor, representatives, mayor, etc. all on one single day and be done with it. So what’s the problem with that. Well, for starters that means you would need to change the city’s charter to change the starting date of office. Article II Section 5 of the City Charter states:
The terms of office of all members of the council elected at a regular municipal election shall be for two (2) years beginning on the first day of June next following their election.
That means city officials would have to propose the change to the charter and San Antonians would have to vote for the change. Simple enough right? Maybe not as simple as you think. As Landa points out in his article “The people who would make the decision to move the elections are the same people who benefit from the low voter turnout.” Just like legislators keep voting down a redistricting commission in Texas because it will potentially hurt the party in charge, city council members may not like having a bunch of people at the polls voting for or against them. How much of a difference is there in numbers? Quite a bit when you consider presidential elections yield over 60% voter turnout compared with 10-15% for local elections with a contested mayor race.
Then there’s the issue of the Constitution which states that presidents are elected every four years, senators every six years, and representatives every two years. Okay we’ll compromise there. Oh, and city council’s in that same predicament of two year terms. So we’ll compromise and hold combined elections every two years on the same day in November. If your office term is up you move into that next two-year cycle. Maybe we can crack this code. But then again, do we really?
You see, not only is the problem with elections today in voter turnout. It’s also in voter participation. That’s about getting voters to pay attention to the issues, research the candidates, and try to make the best decision on the office they are voting for. Sounds simple right? Consider the fact that in 2010 the Bexar County ballot had as many as 60 different races, depending on which precinct you were in. Most of those races were judicial races, of which most voters didn’t have a clue about but played voter roulette when voting.
Even more so, the 2010 Republican tsunami or shellacking, depending on which side of the partisan fence you’re on, swept out a number of Democratic judges because of straight ticket voting. That’s where you are trusting that just because a person has a D or an R behind their name they must be better than the other candidate. Had more voters punched the straight ticket option we would have ended up with a State Board of Education member who listed his job as “politician” and was disappointed to find out the job didn’t pay a salary.
When looking at those down ballot judicial races, I found that around 5% of the voters did not vote in the race at all. That’s compared to 2% for governor and 1% for president. While that doesn’t seem high, it means voters chose to opt out of the race, most likely because they didn’t know the candidates or the issues in that race. What that number doesn’t reveal are those voters who went into the booth, not knowing the candidates but just picking a candidate because he/she had a D or an R behind their name or the name just sounded good. That’s even worse because it dilutes or skews the votes of those who’ve taken the time to research the candidates and issues. In other words, it can diminish or amplify the vote of a candidate.
Right now, voter disapproval seems to be at an all time high with voters send an anti-incumbent message in a recent Gallup poll. Still, voters seem to feel their congressperson is doing a good enough job to send them back to Congress but that figure is dropping. It’s the “your rep stinks but mine is doing a great job in Congress.” syndrome, regardless of who the rep is. With disapproval typically comes apathy to the environment, meaning people vote for anything that is not current state just because they want a change.
Until we can get voters to hone in and start taking elections seriously, including researching candidates and issues, bringing more of the uninformed into the voting booth just makes the problem worse, in my opinion.