Turnout Bum Out

Marty Walsh has been elected the next mayor of Boston.  On January 6, he will become the first new chief executive of New England’s largest city in more than 20 years.

And how many of the residents Walsh will rule actually filled the bubble next to his name on a ballot this past Tuesday?

Eleven percent.

Breaking it down:  According to the most recent estimate, Boston’s population stands at roughly 636,000 people.  Of those, 141,000 voted in Tuesday’s election, with 51.5 percent opting for Walsh.

Admittedly, in arriving at this 11 percent figure, I am being a wee bit cute, as a considerable chunk of any city’s populace could not vote even if it wanted to, non-citizens and those younger than 18 chief among them.

Bearing this in mind, Boston’s “true” turnout in the mayoral contest, from a registered voter pool of some 372,000 souls, rung in at 38 percent—slightly higher than expected—meaning that 19.5 percent of everyone who either did or could have cast a vote on Tuesday went with the man who will be the Big Cheese for the next four years.

Feeling better?

The conundrum of low voter turnout is not a new phenomenon, and is certainly not limited to the home of the World Series champions of 2013.  (In New York City on Tuesday, the figure was a dismal 24 percent.)  In point of fact, elections in odd-numbered years are dependably poorly-attended affairs all across these United States, and the even-numbered events aren’t much better.

That’s the problem:  The aforementioned statistics are the rule, not the exception.

It is a crucial fact of American government, often misunderstood, that we live in a republic, not a democracy.  In practice, our annual elections are the only expression of direct democracy we offer.  They are our one chance to say, simultaneously and en masse, exactly what we think about how the United States should operate.  At all other times, our interests are served indirectly through our elected representatives.

The depressing truth that our piddling participation rates suggest, however, is that most of the time, we are barely even a republic.  That our elected officials can hardly be said to represent “we the people” in any meaningful sense.

Indeed, even in a lopsided race in a well-attended election, a victorious candidate would be extremely lucky to win the endorsement of more than half of all eligible voters.  In some presidential elections (thanks to third-party also-rans), the winner has even failed to secure a majority of the people who actually voted.

This is just the way it is, now and throughout history.  When we say that our leaders are chosen by and represent “the will of the people,” we are using an extremely broad definition of the word “people.”  Very rarely indeed has the sacred principle of “majority rules” involved an actual majority of the American public.

So what, then, do we do with this disheartening information?  Unfortunately, there is no single, silver bullet solution.

In any given election, we might agree that a “perfect world” scenario would entail a turnout of 100 percent of eligible voters, each of whom is sober and well-informed.

But this is where our agreement ends.

Suppose, in some hypothetical race, there is the option of either a 50 percent turnout of citizens who are universally well-informed, or a 100 percent turnout of complete ignoramuses.  Which of these would you prefer?  Which would better serve the interests of the republic?

How about a choice between that well-informed 50 percent versus a 100 percent that is evenly divided between the knows and the know-nothings?  How much are we willing to dilute the share and power of our most diligent citizens for the sake of maximizing total participation in the democratic process?

The answers to such questions are not at all self-evident, yet they concern the very nature of democracy in the modern world.

My own view (in case you wondered) is that voter turnout is an overrated component of the democratic process, provided that those who abstain from voting do so out of a genuine lack of interest in public affairs.  I wish everyone cared as much about the minutiae of government as I, but so long as they don’t, I would prefer they maintained the courtesy of steering clear of the ballot box.

In other words, the ideal within our imperfect system is to maximize voter quality, rather than voter quantity.

If a mayor is not chosen by a genuine majority of his constituents, he might as well be chosen by the particular minority that actually knows his name.


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