Flashback — Excuses:
Why don’t more of us vote?
It’s time for plugged-in Ann Arbor to turn out
This story originally published in our October 2012 edition.
By Amy Whitesall
For a place that hangs its hat on activism and boasts some of the country’s most educated citizens, a lot of votes go uncast on Election Day in Washtenaw County.
The Ann set out to learn why, accosting people in coffee shops and sandwich shops, in stores and at work. Turns out, every single person we talked to said they will vote on Nov. 6.
The statistics tell another story.
Not even half of Washtenaw County’s registered voters turned out for the November 2010 election, and that was with a local guy running for governor. During the recent August state primary, there was one ward in Ann Arbor where just three of the 1,800-plus registered voters turned out to cast ballots. (We were shocked, until we noticed most of that ward encompasses Forest Hills Cemetery. We remained shocked, but in a different way.)
Overall, Washtenaw County’s voter turnout in the August primary was among the lowest in the state at 16 percent. Just 13 percent of Ann Arbor’s registered voters made it to the polls. Turnout is better for presidential elections – 69 percent here in 2008 – but still about the same as the statewide numbers.
When it comes to voting, the smartest county in the state is glaringly average.
Meanwhile, there are places in the world where people brave mortar attacks to cast their vote.
So what’s the deal? Are we lazy? Cynical? Overwhelmed? Can we blame it on the students?
Let’s take a look.
Luis Villa doesn’t listen to the political ads on radio and TV. They’re too slanted, he says, and it’s hard to know what information to trust.
“I think there are a lot of undecided people because (the rhetoric) is so back and forth, it’s hard to decide,” said Villa, 25, of Ann Arbor. “It’s easier to not vote at all and see what everyone else decides.”
Villa thinks voting is important and plans to cast his ballot on Nov. 6. But he’s wary of spin and party politics. Plus, the Electoral College seems kind of shady, he says.
U-M political science professor Nick Valentino says Villa’s reaction isn’t uncommon among young people. Our sense of efficacy – the confidence that we can make positive change – grows as we get older, he says, and when we’re short on that confidence, we withdraw.
And political campaigns don’t invest much in trying to ease the anxiety of the young and undecided, Valentino said. The campaigns get more bang for their buck working to “mobilize the base” – to get the people they know they can count on to actually show up and vote. They target mailings and door-to-door canvassing to those who voted in previous campaigns.
“Are there mailings that go out?” asked Michael Marasko, 24, who voted in the last presidential election but says he’s lost track of the local races. Told that the mailings went out to those who previously turned out, he concluded, “So it’s really people who already want to vote who are going to vote …”
If you’re going to blame University of Michigan students for the unremarkable local voter turnout, at least blame the right ones.
The people doing the most damage to Ann Arbor’s voting cred are the ones who’ve moved away and are still registered to vote here.
“I believe we get a lot of (political) participation, especially from people who are established here,” said County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum. “For people who’ve lived here at least a year, have a residence and a driver’s license and are employed, I think there’s an overwhelmingly large turnout.
“The reason it looks like we don’t have that is not just that we have a lot of students. The registered voter list also has a tremendous amount of deadwood.”
Every year a large number of students cycle out of Ann Arbor, often leaving their voting privileges behind. If they move somewhere else in Michigan, their voter registration will catch up with them when they renew their driver’s license. But if they move out of state, as many do, they stay registered in Ann Arbor, adding to the county’s backlog of voter roll deadwood.
Kestenbaum estimates those names make up about 30 percent of the county’s registered voter list.
Other counties have artificial padding in their voter rolls, too; when the state’s eligible voter list went electronic in 1988, hundreds of thousands of inactive voters were dumped into the system. But the constant churn of people in and out of Ann Arbor means our pile of deadwood is always growing.
Officially removing someone from the registered voter list – a task that falls to city and township clerks – is, frankly, a pain. It takes time, money and more than a little luck.
When the city or township gets a piece of mail returned as undeliverable, they can opt to send a second mailing to the same address that says, essentially, “Please respond to this letter or you’ll be dropped from the voter rolls.” If someone at that address actually bothers to return that letter to the post office as undeliverable, and if the voter misses the next two even-year elections, then they can be kicked off the voter list.
If they vote, though, they stay on the list, even if they’re voting absentee from overseas, and even if the building where they used to live has been gone for years.
“There’s some randomness involved, and the post office is excellent, but they’re not perfect,” Kestenbaum said. “Basically the clerk has to have reliable information that you may have left the jurisdiction.”
Mad enough to … vote?
If you lumped together all the people who don’t vote with the people who vote in every single election no matter what, the two groups would make up more than half the voting population.
But between them on the spectrum are a whole lot of registered voters who follow the races, care about the issues, say they plan to vote – and then don’t.
“A fairly significant chunk of people are sporadic voters,” said Valentino, the U-M professor. “They vote when the obstacles are lowered enough that they know it won’t take all day. Maybe they’ve been living in the same place for a while and they plan to vote, but if it’s raining or the kids are sick, they just won’t go out of their way to vote.”
Or maybe they’re just not mad enough yet.
A few years ago Valentino and his colleagues decided to look at the role emotions play in political participation. They found that anger spurs people into action more powerfully than enthusiasm and more reliably than anxiety.
Valentino and his colleagues looked at existing national data and ran an experiment that asked test subjects to describe in detail something that made them angry, afraid or enthusiastic. They followed up with questions that gauged their willingness to participate in politics. Angry-mindset subjects were consistently more willing to get involved, even in ways that cost them time, money and energy. Some data showed anxious people were more likely to get involved at a bumper-sticker level, but in other cases anxiety just made them withdraw.
“We think emotions like sadness and anxiety probably have a less powerful mobilizing effect, and maybe even a demobilizing effect compared to an emotion like anger,” said Valentino, who’s spent his career studying media and politics.
To that end, don’t look for the negative campaign ads to go away any time soon. Valentino’s study indicates they probably work – stoking moral outrage actually gets people off the couch and into the political process.
The big ballot blues
You step into the voting booth on Nov. 6 with your best intentions to vote for president, U.S. Senate and Congress, the state legislature, a handful of city and county positions, a local proposal or two.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations.
But what about the state board of education, the Wayne State University Board of Governors, the circuit court, district court, probate court, court of appeals? Choose four for the library board and not more than two for the community college trustees.
“I won’t cast votes for some of the positions that I have no clue on,” said Tom Beck, 40, of Ann Arbor. “If I don’t have time to research their records, I’m not so partisan that I’m going to assume one person is a better choice than another one.”
Ann Arbor voters will be asked to elect people to 97 different positions. The choices can still be overwhelming.
“I can’t name all those people off the top of my head and I’m the county clerk,” said Kestenbaum. “And if I don’t know all this, and I’m the most plugged-in person you can imagine, the average voter doesn’t stand a chance.”
What happens next depends on the voter. Many, like Beck, skip parts of the ballot. Some stick with a political party, others vote for the incumbent, or the first candidate listed, or the one with the most familiar name.
Or, when in doubt, the most Irish-sounding candidate.
“There are some interesting things with the ethnicity or familiarity of names,” Kestenbaum said. “People with Irish names tend to run ahead of their opponents. At one point we had two judges (in the state) named Thomas Kavanagh, and people joked that if you were named Kavanagh you should start up your judge campaign. Both were good (judges), but they didn’t have to be.”
When a sense of civic duty isn’t enough, here’s how some other democracies get it done.
The carrot approach: “We know from other countries that when you give people the day off from work, it dramatically increases turnout,” said Valentino.
The stick approach: In some countries, failure to vote means a fine and possibly a prison sentence if the fine isn’t paid. That’s how Australia regularly gets turnout above 90 percent. Miss enough elections in Belgium and you’ll permanently lose your right to vote. Peru withholds some government services from non-voters, and in some places they can have trouble getting things like daycare or government jobs.
“If you make it in people’s material interest that they participate, they will participate,” Valentino said.
Rockets and speed-reading
University of Michigan visiting journalism professor Vanessa Gezari remembers the enthusiasm and optimism she saw in Afghanistan in 2004 in the lead-up to the country’s first post-Taliban Afghan presidential election. A whopping 83 percent of Afghans voted.
But by 2010, when Gezari returned as an independent journalist, corruption, a rising insurgency and deteriorating security had soured the mood for parliamentary elections. Most Afghans stayed away from the polls – rocket attacks make a great deterrent – and those who did vote (38 percent) faced a ballot that would make your head spin.
Voters in Kabul, where Gezari was working, had to choose a single candidate from a 12-page, poster-size ballot with 642 names.
“Each candidate also had a voting number, a thumbnail photo and a small pictorial diagram next to his or her name. The diagrams were simple line drawings – two buckets, for example, or four horses, or three neckties. I was told later that candidates were made to pick three pictures out of a hat and then allowed to choose the symbol that best represented them,” Gezari wrote in a story for The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
The top 33 vote-getters would represent Kabul in the National Assembly. “It was a total disaster,” she said.
Phil Jenkins, 90, an Ann Arbor philanthropist and retired businessman, is known for his generosity, his candor … and his vehement distrust of government. Still, he’s voted in more general elections than anyone we know.
When he hears people say they didn’t vote because they didn’t know enough about the candidates, Jenkins growls, “Bullshit!”
For the record, he says he’s only missed one general election, and that was when he was stranded at a Russian airfield on a business trip. (We believe him, because Jenkins doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks. If he’d missed more he’d tell us.)
“Hell yes, I vote,” he says. “My mother would rise up out of her grave and come after me if I didn’t.”
OK, so what about primaries? “Oh, I’ve missed a few primaries,” Jenkins says. “Didn’t know enough about the people.”
Hats off to the 16 percent
Voting in primary elections is notoriously thin. The prevailing attitude is that so many races are uncontested, it almost seems pointless. But when it comes to local races – the ones that probably have the greatest impact on your day-to-day life – the heavy lifting happens in August, and your vote has tremendous power.
“If (as a candidate) you don’t make it through the primary, you’re done. I don’t know if people realize that;” said Lynda Dew, who beat incumbent Augusta Township Treasurer Susan Burek by three votes in the August Democratic primary to earn a spot on the November ballot.
Primary voters – and this year that was not even two in every 10 voters – basically determine the ballot we all see in November.
“I tell people I’d like you to vote for me, but mainly just come out and vote,” said Dew, who’s been involved in township politics since the 1990s. “This is your opportunity to have your say. How could you not think that it’s important when you see people in other countries being denied the right to vote or being killed when they try to vote.”
Some handy-dandy excuses