Today’s Crystal Ball(ots): Rising Turnout Leads into Uncharted Waters
Tuesday, February 19th, 2008
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – I hopped off the campaign trail last week. I thought I needed some space, but I soon found myself yearning for the ebb-and-flow of election energy. Drama among the Democrats, rifts in the Republican base, increasing turnout, and polling percentages… for a political junkie it is all too addicting. Today’s candidate contests are being held in Wisconsin, Hawaii (for the Dems), and Washington (again). The forecast is for heightened turnout levels in all three States, even though Hawaii’s Democratic caucus turnout has never exceeded 5,000 voters, and Washington’s Primary does not count for any delegates.
Wisconsin is among the most politically active States in the Union. It has an extremely progressive election law and a pragmatic approach to solving election administration mishaps. Turnout in the 2004 and 2000 Primaries was 24.6% and 22.7% respectively, and with 92 delegates at stake, this year’s will easily eclipse those. Here’s why: The State’s Government Accountability Board offers an array of options to would-be Wisconsin voters. No-excuse voting allows them to vote absentee without having to specify a reason. Early in-person voting has been operative since January 29th, and Election Day registration allows new and non-partisan voters to register and vote in Party Primaries at polling precincts.
These laws especially help to enfranchise youth and under-65 voters, and yet Wisconsin is not without voting problems. WUWM-Public Radio reports that state inspectors will be checking accessibility for the disabled and elderly. This constituency routinely votes at rates 15 percentage points lower than other demographics. There are over 600,000 eligible voters older than 65. AARP Wisconsin has over 826,000 members, which make up almost 15% of the entire electorate. Senators Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold have stellar records of accomplishment when it comes to encouraging their constituents’ vote and campaign finance reform. Senator Kohl is Chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, and in a January press release proclaimed, “If we do not remove the barriers that prevent elderly and disabled citizens from exercising their right to vote, then we are – for all intents and purposes – disenfranchising them;” and Senator Feingold has led the way with the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill.
Hawaii is a horse of a different color. Wisconsinites routinely trek through frigid weather in order to cast their ballots, while in a bucolic climate, nobody seems to care about Hawaii’s nominating contests, not even Hawaiians… perhaps they are mesmerized by the ocean breeze. There are 29 delegates in total, and caucus turnout is typically around 0.06%. This year the close race and Obama’s effective mobilization strategy ensure that droves of new voters are going to weigh-in. The Honolulu Advertiser reports that turnout could increase by more than 200%! Unfortunately, even if turnout increases by 300%, less than 2% of Hawaiians will have exercised their franchise. If residents demanded a Primary and if the Parties agreed to hold ‘open’ elections, than turnout would rise to respectable levels. As of yet such an impulse does not exist.
Not so in Washington. Long considered a harbinger of flexible, forward-thinking election law. Washingtonians vote-by-mail, and because of that, the State sports exceedingly high voter turnout in general elections. But why then is Washington holding a Primary when it held a caucus two weeks ago? For the Republican race there are 9 delegates up for grabs, and for the Democrats there is a burgeoning activist movement. The Seattle Times reports turnout in the caucuses was 7.6% because they are ‘closed’ contests. Republican, Democratic, and Non-partisan voters have been advocating for an ‘open’ primary system for years, but their request was denied by the State Parties before this year’s election. In a symbol of solidarity, Washingtonians and Secretary of State Sam Reed are ignoring the Parties’ decision, and opening the Primaries; and if they eclipse the 7.6% turnout their stance will be hard to rollback.
This scenario is indicative of a much broader, national groundswell. Voters, no matter what their Parties’ preference, want primaries and caucuses that are open to the public. Improving our government, as Bobby Kennedy said, “…depends on what we do with what others have left us”.. In the State of Washington – and throughout the country – droves of new voters and party loyalists alike are taking matters into their own hands through the wonderfully simple act of merely voting. To paraphrase a well-known (Green Bay) Wisconsin coach, “Voting isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
Wisconsin photo via ppad on flickr.