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Low Voter Turnout: Are We Downsizing Democracy?

The voter turnout numbers are an embarrassment. Throughout the country in nonpresidential elections, less than 30 percent of voters turn out for elections. In presidential campaigns, billions are spent and the media does focus on the national race, horserace style, which isn’t something to cheer about either. In nonpresidential elections, we are facing a political disconnect and a crisis in democracy.


One way to look at the problem is to start by examining the Orwellian nature of local TV news. Though they often refer to their journalism as “complete local coverage,” their coverage is never complete local coverage nor could it be logistically. They’re not even close. Local stations are actually regional stations covering as many as a hundred local municipalities. They’re good at moving products, but hardly “complete local coverage.”

This has a significant affect on local turnout. I recently surveyed local high school students; fewer than ten percent knew who their mayor, their assembly member, or state senator were. In a very good book on voter turn out, Non Voters:American No Show, by Jack Doppelt and Ellen Shearer, half of the people who didn’t vote are not connected to information about politics, especially local politics. Many of these “no shows” didn’t vote for a very good reason: They didn’t know who to vote for and didn’t want to make a mistake and vote for someone who would make things worse than what they already are!

So if they watch local news shows as directed, they won’t have a clue as to who to vote for because local stations -- unlike their claim of “complete local coverage” -- rarely give them local political information. Local TV news departments do however cover local crime news. Part of the logistical problem is that a viewer from one town with a remote in his hand usually won’t watch a story about politics in another municipality, unless it’s a crime story.

This problem of informing potential voters isn’t rocket science. We coach and develop people in many fields, especially sports, so why not democracy? I‘ve thought for awhile a solution could be to create a monthly issue project that could be the potential focus of a whole community. The topic could be chosen by a panel of local educators and journalists. The local high schools could distribute an article about the issue to all students. Students would be encouraged to read the article and have their parents also read the story. Local cable stations could do a program about the issue. Other residents of the given district could be sent the article by email.

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Data vendors and county registrars of voters have most email addresses by geographic areas. If they are not online they could be contacted about the article and cable program by robo call. It could also be posted on You Tube. The topics could be about the city or the school board and education or the county and the board of supervisors or even a statewide or national issues. Statewide issues rarely get coverage on most local TV stations. The elected officials and journalists involved in the issue could do a follow up event at the local high schools and make personal contact with the students. Students could even be part of the cable and YouTube production.

Before we had television, FDR had “fireside chats” that over 80 percent of the population listened to. We can’t force people to focus on a political issue but we can have a coordinated effort where we can inform them about a relatively important issue in their area.

The creative thinker, author and labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan recently opined that we have become a society with “fewer union members, fewer voters and more prisons.” Being misdirected by our media system from local politics is a big step in driving down citizen participation. The media is set up to sell product, sandwiched between entertainment and some political information. As progressives we do a fairly good job of analyzing the national media but could be more critical of local media and its effect on our democracy. Locally, we could also do something about it.

craig williams

This could be a win/win not only for our democracy but also for our declining print media.

Craig Williams
Developing Democracy