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David Hill: America’s election apathy

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America, we have a problem. Most of us are no longer interested in elections. And for some, the disinterest is growing. 

A poll of young voters, ages 18-29, taken for Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP) discovered that only 23 percent will “definitely” be voting in the forthcoming November elections. The most recent March-April results are 11 percentage points lower than the certainty of voting expressed in a similar poll taken just last December. The bottom is literally dropping out in some states or specific categories of voters. 

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My own polling shows declining interest in elections and campaigns, even in states with competitive primaries and general elections. It’s not just youths who are losing interest. Consider the recent Nebraska primaries that were so ostensibly salient to pundits nationwide. Only 27 percent of voters showed up, even disappointing the secretary of State there, who had predicted 30 percent turnout. What’s up? A lot.

The Harvard analysis blames the prolonged political angst we are experiencing. IOP Director Trey Grayson says, “The Institute’s spring poll shows 18- to 29- year-olds’ trust in public institutions at a five-year low – and their cynicism toward the political process has never been higher.” Harvard’s John Della Volpe goes deeper, saying, “There’s an erosion of trust in the individuals and institutions that make government work — and now we see the lowest level of interest in any election we’ve measured since 2000.” 

This is not surprising. Following the last great nationwide “crisis in confidence” that trailed Watergate, turnout began a slow slide that finally and convincingly reversed itself only with the first election of Barack Obama. When the medicine that cured your ills turns toxic, a death spiral may not be far behind.

While the distrust and cynicism thesis has some merit, it alone cannot account for the reduced interest that voters exhibit in campaigns and elections. A lot of blame falls on campaign finance laws. Just before the communications revolution exploded, creating hundreds if not thousands of new channels of communications to voters, the do-gooders passed laws that began to limit spending by candidates. The result is that while it takes more money than ever to fill all the channels, there’s less to do it with. 

At the same time, lawmakers and the courts have created an absolutely stupid alternative system of campaigning through independent expenditure. Shadowy committees that were chartered yesterday and can be traced only to a post office box suddenly and erratically dump hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars into a state, usually with negative messages. No wonder voters get confused and lose interest.

It’s like watching a sports event where the players don’t have numbers on their three or four colors of jerseys, and there’s no program or scoreboard or referees. In short, it’s a little chaotic, these multi-committee-sponsored contests. When it was just the moderate and the conservative or the Republican and Democrat, voters could follow the action. Now insurgents with names like Oaks of Freedom and Heartland of the Midwest PAC play games of mischief to screw up the choice process.

The independent expenditure campaigns know this. They are part of the Rovian cabal that wants to drive the right- or left-wing bases with wedge issues and send everyone else to the exits. If you have the math right, this can work. All that Harvard stuff about engendering trust and confidence be damned. It doesn’t advance your ideology.

How to fix all this? For one thing, let candidates control their own campaign messages without limits. Eliminate all restrictions on donations to candidates and expenditures by candidate campaigns. Make the candidates the biggest spenders, but with strict transparency requirements. We’d finally give candidates enough money to run widely seen and heard positive, trust-building messages, not just negative attacks.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.