Voter Turnout and Why We Vote
In April 2003 I joined the office of the Supervisor of Elections for Hillsborough County, Florida. Although Florida had gotten a bad rap in 2000 on elections, the Hillsborough SOE had done an excellent job, so much so that the Supervisor was subsequently elected mayor of Tampa. I came into a well-functioning office, staffed with seasoned professionals, as the chief of staff. Wanting to put my own stamp on the office, I decided to focus on voter registration and turnout at the polls. Elections are very much like a military operation. At a precise time (0700), on a precise day, (2d Tuesday in November), we had to open 340 store fronts, staffed by minimally trained, grossly underpaid folks to bring in a reluctant clientele to participate in a process (voting) that they may or may not really understand. If anything went wrong in the overall process, you would be in the news the next day for voter fraud, voter suppression or just being an idiot. If everything went perfectly, nobody noticed. With the exception of the folks executing, it was very much like a military operation.
Energizing voter registration was not difficult. It was a matter of increasing opportunities to interact with the potential electorate. Any place where we knew a line would form, we would be there. Concerts, sporting events, or iPhone sales, a group of volunteers and staff would show up with clip boards in hand. Voter turnout was a different challenge.
From 1972 until 2000, voter turnout in Florida for Presidential elections was 75%. This meant that 75% of eligible voters cast valid ballots. In 2000, that percentage dipped to 70%. Clearly there was a problem, and I was going to solve it. I gathered the staff, presented the problem and asked for ideas on how we could increase voter turnout for the upcoming 2004 Presidential election. The staff, all experienced elections hands, looked at each other nervously, until one gathered the courage to speak up.
He said, “Boss, great idea. All you have to do is ensure that each race has candidates with significant differences in character or that embrace issues that have significant impact on the voter”.
I looked around the table at the expectant faces who, I now realize, were suppressing smiles and said, “But, the election office can’t impact that!”
He looked back at me and said, “Righttttttttt.”
The fact is, getting voters to the polls is about highlighting the differences in the character of the candidates and making the issues relevant to the voters. The current Presidential campaign seems to be focused on who said the last stupid thing. It needs to focus on the character of the candidates and the issues that concern the voters.
We must all judge the character of the candidates based on our own set of values. We trust people who share our values. If you do not have a good grasp on what your personal values are, just describe your best friend. You have just articulated your own values. What candidates’ character aligns with your moral compass?
Issues that impact voters will vary based upon education, experience, and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You may be concerned about the valuation of the Chinese yuan, but if the rumors around the workplace about the next round of layoffs are ringing in your ears, you are more interested in what your candidate has to say about government intervention in the economy. If your children’s school is failing, the implications of democratic election of a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to the Presidency of Egypt may not be on your radar. All of the larger, thorny issues of national security and international economics pale in comparison to the issues of living paycheck to paycheck and the looming bacon shortage.
As a result, it is even more critical that the candidates help people understand why Chinese balance of trade issues affect them directly. They must explain how our dependence on oil requires us to worry about stability in the Middle East and why their tax dollars are being spent to defend the sea lines of supply for oil destined for Japan. These issues are complex, but interrelated.
The political polls are an indication of how people might vote. They can generate complacency as well. If your guy is in the lead, why bother to vote by mail, early or at the polls; it’s a done deal, right? Wrong. Whatever method you use to exercise your franchise, make sure that, on November 6th, you wear your “I Voted” sticker. It is fashionable and goes with everything. If your election office doesn’t provide them, contact me. I know a guy.
As we tune into the upcoming debate, consider the character of the candidates along with their stance on the issues. What they value defines their viewpoint on the issues. Sit down and make a list of the issues that affect you. If the candidates’ values resonate with yours and their solution set to the issues touching your life make sense, go to the polls (by mail, early or precinct) and let your voice be heard. If you don’t think a single vote matters, you may be right. In Florida, we know that 537 votes did matter.
Dan Nolan is a Truman Security Fellow