Abysmal voter turnout a sad statement

We need to boost civic literacy and participation

A VANISHINGLY SMALL number of voters will be visiting the polls for today’s Massachusetts state primary. And you know what? It’s our fault.

In our dreams, election days are supposed to depict an overflow of patriotism and sweet electoral engagement, where voters swarm the polls to practice their civic duty.

In our election day fantasies we envision long lines of voters that snake out of the many public schools, elderly building, libraries where elections are held — all eager citizens ready to cast a ballot for their preferred candidate.  Those voters would have researched the candidates and the issues exhaustively.  They would have applied much scrutiny and engaged in deep rumination over policy.  And then arrived at final choices.

But alas, in Massachusetts today such visions of voter abundance will not be realized. Sadly, at the end of the day, we’ll see that people avoided the polls as if they were allergic to the ballots and suffering from a bad case of civic anemia.

Secretary of State William Galvin is predicting a miserably low turnout of 10 percent. Voter activists are not surprised. State and county primary races that don’t include the state’s constitutional offices — governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor — are all but ignored by voters.

Voter activists recognize that the electorate doesn’t get ginned-up if statewide office holders are not on the ballot. For some reason, voters feel that so-called “down ballot” races don’t matter as much presidential or gubernatorial contests. These voters mistakenly feel that communities take care of themselves and that state representative, sheriff, and state Senate seats are superfluous.

The reasons?  Systemic low civic literacy and poor election planning.

First, most eligible voters fail to understand the importance of local state races. They don’t discern the relationship between non-gubernatorial elections and selection of state senators and representatives — who hold incredible sway over the development of the state’s budget each year. And they don’t make the connection between the election of their local state officials and the statewide legislation each office holder is responsible for approving or rejecting.

This reflects the failure of our public school systems, most of which do not teach formal civics in middle and high school. It also reflects the failure of local community-based and civic organizations which could do more in voter registration, education, and mobilization, especially within communities of color.

An answer to this is that we need a comprehensive statewide civic literacy agenda. We need a standardized civics curriculum in middle and high school that inculcates students with an understanding of civic values and the importance of community engagement.

“[Voter activity is] largely driven by the candidate effort,” Galvin said Tuesday at a press conference. “So those places that have those campaigns where the candidates have been canvassing, in particular for the legislative seats in the House, where it’s a very localized campaign, I think we’re going to see a better turnout.”

But it really shouldn’t be that way. Voters should be self-motivated to cast their ballots because they recognize the inherent value of electoral participation. But citizens can’t be motivated generally if they lack a foundation on the basics of democratic participation.

We also need better election planning. Today’s turnout will be especially low because voting is being held on a Thursday, not Tuesday — the traditional election day – because of this week’s Labor Day holiday. We should not allow this change to take place again.

We should also consider online voting. Online voter registration is now in place in Massachusetts, with secured internet portals that protect privacy. The natural extension of this technology is voting via protected websites.

Many candidates for state and countywide offices will be disappointed tonight after the polls close and the votes are counted. That’s because for most races there can be only one winner.

Meet the Author

But we all should wake up tomorrow feeling like losers precisely because we haven’t done more to get people prepared and available to vote.

Kevin Peterson is a democracy activist and founder of The New Democracy Coalition.