by Pete Mazzaccaro
Next Tuesday is election day in Philadelphia. The big race is the Democratic primary for mayor, which in Philadelphia, where Democrats enjoy a huge registration majority, the Democratic mayoral nominee is as good as mayor elect. The last Republican to occupy the city’s mayoral office was Bernard Samuels who was elected to a third term in 1948.
There is no shortage of issues that are important to city voters this year. Education, taxes and crime are still high on the list of things voters care about. All are at play in this election.
But if I were to bet, I would guess voter turnout will not be high. It’s anyone’s guess as to why that may be – general apathy, indecision or wholesale disillusion – but the fact remains, turnout is often really low in the city.
In 2011, when Mayor Nutter was nominated to a second term, city turnout was a dismal 21 percent. Part of the reason for the poor turnout was Nutter’s opponent: Milton Street, the Philadelphia mayoral candidate version of the Washington Generals. In 2007, when Nutter first won the nomination, it was against a crowded field of Democratic candidates who spent significantly on campaigning. Yet Democratic turnout failed to reach 40 percent of eligible voters.
Low voter turnout isn’t only a city problem. It’s a national problem.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that the United States has the 31st lowest voter participation of 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of developed, first-world democracies.
In 2012, almost 84.3 percent of registered U.S. voters made it to polls in a national election, which would appear to be a fantastic turnout. But when votes cast are measured against the number of U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote, the turnout rate declines considerably to 53.6 percent. It’s a total that puts us ahead of only Japan, Chile and Switzerland among that group of 34 nations.
According to the Pew report, voter turnout as a percentage of eligible voters has been remarkably consistent in the U.S.
From the report: “Since 1980, voting-age turnout has varied within a 9-percentage-point range – from 48% in 1996, when Bill Clinton was re-elected, to 57% in 2008, when Barack Obama won the White House.”
The consequences of low turnout are debatable. The 19th century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville said, “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” Of all the institutions we have in the U.S., few are less popular than government. It could be argued that greater voter participation would result in a government that better reflects the people.
But perhaps turnout is more a reflection of the choices people feel they have. Our choices in government, particularly at the highest levels that attract greater media attention and campaign spending, are often pretty slim. To obtain the support of both party and financial backers is a difficult thing to do. The results are that few people can clear the necessary hurdles to candidacy.
If more people voted, it likely would mean very little in the outcomes of our elections. More voters does not automatically mean more candidates for office. We need to figure out how to get better choices. Better turnout will follow.