Punxsutawney politics

Just when we discovered that we’re facing flu season with a shortage of flu vaccine, another public-health menace is about to raise its ugly head. I call it “Secretary of State Syndrome.”
Just when we discovered that we’re facing flu season with a shortage of flu vaccine, another public-health menace is about to raise its ugly head. I call it “Secretary of State Syndrome.”

Unlike flu season, which occurs annually, this malady occurs biennially and only in election years. And fortunately, it apparently doesn’t infect anyone except elections officials and the media.

For reasons that defy explanation even by the Centers for Disease Control, state election officials and local election clerks become delusional about this time every two years, and they start predicting huge increases in voter turnout. And then cross-contaminated media report these predictions.

Several weeks ago, we began to see published reports of “massive” increases in voter registration. And we’ve seen several reports on the “power” that newly registered 18- to 20-year-olds and immigrants will exert in the upcoming election. They are “rocking the vote,” we are promised.

During the next two weeks, we’ll witness election officials doing their best imitation of Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day (“Seer of Seers, Prognosticator of Prognosticators”) when they trot out their estimates of record-breaking turnout.

And like the mob that descends on Punxsutawney, Pa., each year, the press will swarm around these pretentious prophecies.

One notion that always surfaces at these events is the prediction that the perceived “closeness” of the election will guarantee high turnout. Voters will “know” that their vote could be decisive, hail the seers. Objective data say expected closeness doesn’t make a difference in turnout, but secretaries of state seem not to notice or care.

Consider the 18 so-called “battleground states” where the election was so close in 2000. Six of the nine states with the lowest voter turnout in 2000 — Arkansas, Nevada, West Virginia, Arizona, Tennessee and New Mexico — were battleground states. The closeness of the race in those states seemed to have no bearing on turnout.

The fault of these sorts of “rational voter” explanations for voting or not voting is that they are too sophisticated and too influenced by insider notions of politics. For most Americans, voting is just another item on the real-life to-do list — like picking up a loaf of bread or watching a favorite TV show — and not a coherent calculation based on expected political outcomes.

That was most evident in a massive survey that the U.S. Census Bureau conducted after the 2000 election. That survey explored the reasons people didn’t vote in November 2000. The list of reasons is more akin to “the dog ate my homework” than anything having to do with a calculus of politics. Twenty-one percent simply said they were “too busy” to vote that day. An additional 15 percent blamed some illness or emergency for not voting. And 12 percent confessed that they just were “not interested.”

Lesser numbers blamed travel (10 percent), transportation problems (2 percent) or bad weather (1 percent). Four percent confessed they forgot to vote, and 8 percent couldn’t recall any reason that they didn’t vote.

What’s interesting is that almost no one blamed not voting on any lack of election appeal. Only 8 percent of the voters polled by the Census Bureau complained that they didn’t like the candidates. All in all, most nonvoters don’t vote simply because they’re not inclined to think that it’s very important.

Secretaries of state are not completely culpable for their unsubstantiated optimism.
They are simply trying to inject a little positive thinking into the political discourse. It’s their job to talk up turnout. But sometime, I’d like to see an election official tell the truth and give the electorate some tough love about voter turnout. And it would be great to see someone say thank goodness that people who are too busy to keep up with politics won’t be voting.

Maybe the first step toward higher turnout is an accurate assessment of why it’s so low and an honest evaluation of why voting matters or not.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.