Guest Editorial on Voter Turnout by Eric Fredland ~ Annapolis Capital Punishment

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Guest Editorial on Voter Turnout by Eric Fredland

The below guest editorial has been provided by Eric Fredland. The views and opinions expressed are solely those of Mr. Fredland and do not necessarily represent those of Capital Punishment. We gratefully acknowledge and thank the author for this contribution to our community discourse and invite other readers to share their thoughts:

The margin of victory in the Annapolis mayoral election was about 250 votes, and several of the city council elections were much closer than that.  Voter turnout was, as usual, called “low,” a circumstance said to be regrettable.  But it is not regrettable – in fact, it is a good thing.  It would be easy to increase voter turnout for the city election, and it would be cheaper to administer the election too.  If the city election were held at the same time as the state and national elections, the numbers of votes cast in the city election would certainly be larger than they were this year.  So why is the timing different?  The reason, I believe, is to give the votes of those who really care who governs the city more weight.

            Annapolis voters really had four choices in voting for mayor, not three.  A voter could choose Cohen, Cordell, Fox, or none of the above.  Not voting is a choice.  It says, in effect, “I have no preference among these three candidates.”  Actually, another choice would be to write-in one’s neighbor’s name, or someone else, but that act is equivalent to not voting – it also expresses, “no preference.”  There may be a few citizens who read campaign literature and Capital stories, and attended a candidate forum, and concluded after careful consideration that all three candidates were smart and well-spoken, and would be equally good at running the city.  Or perhaps, that their performances would be equally poor.  Having weighed the evidence, these citizens vote “No Preference” by not going to the polls, or perhaps by going and voting for their city council representative, but not for mayor.  There probably aren’t many of these people, of course.  There are far more citizens who have no interest in who runs the city government.  They didn’t read the newspaper stories or attend forums. They may think (probably wrongly) that Annapolis would be governed exactly the same way regardless of who is mayor.   In fact, despite the signage all over the city, I suspect there are a lot of registered voters who would not have been able to tell you who the candidates were. They have no preference, and register that choice by not voting.  If city elections were on the same cycle as state and national elections, many of those with no interest in city politics would go to the polls and vote – drawn by a strong concern for who is elected to Congress or who becomes President.  Most of them would vote for local candidates as well, even though they had no interest in the outcome.  And those votes, of which there would be a great many, would count just as much as the votes of the local citizens who care intensely about city government.

            I was first struck by this thought a number of years ago when my wife and I lived for a while in Gaithersburg and worked in Washington.  We were apartment renters in what was then a new planned community.  We had no children at the time.  Our friends lived in DC, Silver Spring, Annapolis, and elsewhere.  Except for groceries, we didn’t shop in Gaithersburg.  In fact, it was several months before we even knew where the downtown was.  Every morning we got into two cars and drove to our jobs.  On weekends, we socialized elsewhere.  In short we had no stake in the community.  But, of course we were registered to vote there, and we voted in the national election.  As in Annapolis, the city election was on a different cycle, and as I recall, voting in the city election required a separate registration.  My wife and I of course didn’t register and thus didn’t vote in the city election.  We had no interest – “no preference.”  Yet if the city election had been held with the national election, I’d have pulled a lever for a candidate I’d barely, if ever, heard of, probably based entirely on party affiliation.  My vote, and those of hundreds of others who lived in that planned community would have diluted the votes, and perhaps overwhelmed the preferences, of those with a real stake in the city, which had been in the recent past a relatively small, quiet, isolated place.  I had no business playing a part in choosing the mayor of Gaithersburg, and because the city elections were separate, I didn’t.

            Annapolis has many citizens who made the perfectly rational choice not to vote in the city election.  The low turnout in effect gives more weight to the preferences of those of us who had a strong interest in the outcome.

Annapolis native (went to Annapolis High in the Md Hall building) Eric Fredland  has a PhD in Economics from the University of Michigan.  He was a faculty member in the Economics Department at the Naval Academy 1974-2006 and was department chair on and off for 11 1/2 of those years.  He retired at the end of the 2005-2006 academic year.

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Gilbert Renaut said...

Well, the logic of this guest editorial is impeccable, but it rather begs the question why are they most interested? The conventional wisdom is that low turnout means the party machine wins, and the party machine no doubt does "care" the most, but why is that good?

Paul Foer said...

Exactly....I do not agree with the views expressed by Mr Fredland, but hey--we are a forum and I am glad to post his opinions here--and yours too!

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