by Brian Rudnick
On May 19, former Philadelphia City Councilman Jim Kenney became the presumptive Mayor-Elect of Philadelphia when he won the Democratic primary with little more than 10 percent of voting age adults in Philadelphia voting for him.
We can demonize the silent and vast majority – the 75 percent of us who don’t vote – as apathetic, lazy and cynical but let’s not.
Most people don’t vote because it’s simply not worth it.
Why people vote or do anything for that matter is to experience pleasure, avoid pain or achieve some benefit, economic or other.
Dismally low voter turnout can be attributed to two major problems. First, if we don’t believe the choices we are given are real choices, we choose not to choose.
Why vote if the choice is Tweedledee or Tweedledum? Millionaires and billionaires are successful in getting candidates to stick their hands in the cookie jar before elections, through campaign contributions. Why is it any surprise that so many of them get caught paying back favors or sticking their hands in the cookie jar while holding public office as executives, legislators and judges?
Let’s enact a simple, progressive tax system so there is no such thing as super rich. Billionaires will have to adjust to being just really, really, rich. A person should run out of millions before running out of fingers and toes to count them on.
Let’s restrict contributions to candidates from the voters whom they will represent. Let’s not only put limits on how much any one voter can give to any one candidate but trace those contributions with electronic dye as they flow into, through and out of PACs and super-PACs to ensure those limits are being observed.
The second major problem underlying low voter turnout is a systemic one: Any one vote means little, but collectively they mean a lot.
Voting, economists say, is a classic free rider situation, where our individual incentive is to not vote and depend on others to vote, hoping those others will vote, more or less, the way we want. We need to confront and overcome the free-rider dilemma.
Let’s make voting easy from the start: Automatically enroll each of us citizens in the voting rolls and let the federal, state and local governments come to a timely agreement as to where we currently and primarily reside, so it’s clear which elections we may vote in.
Allow us to vote on a Saturday and Sunday weekend when more of us are around or perhaps from computers in library branches over the course of a full week.
Give us more choices by easing ballot access. If we didn’t have enough reason to vote in the Philadelphia May primary, we have even a less of a reason to vote in the November general election because the Democratic primary winners are a done deal. “Third world” is how we pejoratively refer to countries where there is only one choice on the ballot, and the Philadelphia fall district City Council races are likely to fill that bill.
Impose term limits. In Philadelphia, the best prognosticator of who will sit on City Council is the same as it is for the weather: probably the same as yesterday. May’s primary was a bit of an exception but explainable.
Twelve challengers ran against four incumbents for five at-large seats. The incumbents took two. One challenger was guaranteed the seat opened by departing Council member Kenney, and that went to a party loyalist who has been paying his party dues. A multi-millionaire unseated one incumbent. And the valiant leader of a small rebellion fomented by the dire straits of the Philadelphia public school system squeaked by in last place to unseat another – solar eclipses are more common. Dullsville will resume next election cycle.
For judicial candidates, on a handful of occasions, require them to submit to being put in a public stockade of sorts while we get to hurl questions at them. They will get their turn at us in court. It has to be more fun and informative than hitting the first button we see because that’s what we voters do when we don’t know these 44 people from a hole in the ground. And it has to be better than picking as someone to judge over us, the lawyer who was suspended from law practice by the State Supreme Court but was lucky enough to draw the best ballot position, no?
For referenda questions, require the issues to be publicly analyzed and discussed. And since we humans tend to vote yes, on half the ballots word each question conversely so that a “Yes” on one ballot is equivalent to a “No” on its converse. Referenda are a more direct form of democracy and more dynamic.
While some countries fine people for not voting, let us reward people for voting. Say we each get $9 for voting – what each Philadelphia juror gets for showing up to do his or her civic duty.
I look forward to the day when it is both more fun and more worthwhile to vote – when I can walk out of the polling booth on election day knowing that I’ve both done my civic duty and that, in fact, I have made a difference. And with a small fistful of Susan B. Anthony or Sacagawea dollar coins happily jingling in my hand.
Democracy, a most radical idea.
Brian Rudnick is a resident of Chestnut Hill.