A Warning on The Turnout Issue

Talk is turning to turnout this week, and the issue of motivation has been popping up. Ken Mellman recently put out a memo saying that there wasn't a motivation gap, and that the Republican base is as fired up as ever. Common sense suggests this is unlikely. Time will tell. Nonetheless, there is a danger that the turnout figure overall will be taken as some sort of proxy for a measure of voter enthusiasm. For instance, in low turnout polls where Democrats don't win, expect turnout to be blamed on "democrats who had nothing to vote for", or somethign similar. For that reason this piece, hidden away on the Washington Post's "Think Tank town" section, is a very useful corrective. It argues sensibly that turnout is going to be down - way down - not just on 2004 but on 1994 and other congressional years. Why? At least part of it will be the fault of Republican redistricting, which has significantly reduced the number of competitive districts. (Turnout is lower if voters don't think they influence the outcome.) But part of it is just the way the cycle has panned out. Arnold looks very likely to win in CA, while the word "win" doesn't really do justice to the spanking that Elliot Spitzer is meeting out to whoever his Republican opponent is in New York. The fact of these two states having no state wide competitive race will depress national turnout considerably. 

The fault is not on the voters; people's lives are busy, and a rational person will abstain when their vote does not matter to the election outcome. The political parties also are sensitive to competition and focus their limited resources where elections are competitive... The old adage of "build it and they will come" is relevant. All but hardcore sports fans tune out a blowout. Building competitive elections -- and giving voters real choices -- will do much to increase voter turnout in American politics. There are a number of reforms on the table: redistricting to create competitive districts, campaign financing to give candidates equal resources, and even altering the electoral system to fundamentally change how a vote elects representatives....

As a foreigner in this country, it has always seemed to me that the American system of politicized redistricting (as opposed to the impartial quasi-judicial system in most European countries) is little short of crazy. Here is just one more reason why. Lets hope someone fixes it before there aren't any competitive races left.