We've got an elections problem, and it has only slightly to do with distorted TV ads, harassing robo calls and a corrupt campaign financing system.
The problem is how few voters go to the polls. Much ado was made about this being a "blue moon" election in North Carolina, a national, non-presidential year in which there were no prominent statewide races (just minor posts like, say, chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court). As a result, we'll be lucky if even 42 percent of North Carolina's voters went to the polls this time around as they did in 1994, the state's last blue moon election (though it'll be hard not to beat the pitiful 12 percent of voters who turned out in May). And turnout wasn't expected to be anything like the 65 percent who voted when presidential, senate and governor's races were on the ballot in November 2004.
But even that's not enough. There are lots of ideas out there to boost voting—same-day registration, non-partisan voter information, even declaring Election Day a holiday, as does Puerto Rico, where turnout in 2000 led the nation at 82 percent. But few think that will change the fundamental problem—that citizens just don't think their vote matters.
To understand why they may think that, you need only look back to Bob Geary's story this year about "The Vanishing Voter" (Aug. 16, 2006, www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A35484). In it, he cites three fundamental problems: 1. Very few contested state races because of bipartisan legislative gerrymandering; 2. Few third-party candidates because of ballot-access obstacles; 3. Weak campaign-finance laws that allow unlimited spending by parties and big wheels willing to set up independent campaign organizations and find other ways around the rules.
The numbers backing up the problems are stunning. This year, there was only one major-party candidate in 23 of the state's 50 Senate races and 64 of the state's 120 House contests. Because the state so restricts ballot access, that amounts to automatic election (or reelection) for nearly half the Senate and more than half of the House. Not much incentive to vote there. And campaign spending continues to skyrocket, with allegedly independent "527" organizations moving in on state judicial races that were supposed to become a model for nonpartisanship and public financing.
The solutions are not secret and have been debated for years: 1. Create a nonpartisan commission to oversee redistricting as a dozen other states have done already; 2. Loosen ballot-access rules so they're not among the most restrictive in the nation; 3. Enact true campaign finance reform that includes public financing and further limits big money.
That's not to say there won't be any more offensive attack ads, or Republicans won't find new dirty tricks like the robo calling that's plagued the rest of the nation this week, or money won't try to find a way to influence power. It just means voters will be more empowered to fight back—at the polls.