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Low Voter Turnout Nationwide Highlights Need for Primary Reform

by Debbie Sharnak, published
Recently, political pundits have attempted to

make sense of the sweep of November elections from Detroit to Colorado to New York.

Still, 3 years from the 2016 presidential race, it is hard to know if Chris Christie’s landslide re-election in New Jersey really makes him the frontrunner for the Republican ticket. However, one thing is certain: turnout was at an all-time low.

While off-year elections usually produce a lower voter turnout, this year was particularly bleak.

It was not just the lack of excitement for the candidates, though. The special election to replace Senator Frank Lautenberg three weeks earlier had only a 24.5 percent turnout, which was the lowest turnout in any statewide election in New Jersey’s history.

As journalist Matt Friedman wrote, it was a watershed year for voter apathy in the state.

In New York, despite the fact that the city voted in the first Democratic mayor in 12 years, only 24 percent of registered voters came out to support Bill de Blasio. This new record surpasses only a 28 percent turnout four years ago, showing the declining interest and growing disaffection in the Big Apple.

Both these elections, however, could be attributed to the landslides in which the eventual winner was predicted to win in the weeks leading up to the election, convincing voters they might as well stay home because their vote wouldn't matter.

News out of Virginia, though, indicates a wider trend. Even in the extraordinarily close gubernatorial election, only 43 percent of voters made it to the polls, as opposed to eighty percent in the previous year’s presidential race.

These numbers trump other places around the country like Atlanta, where the mayoral race saw only 15 percent turnout, Houston, which only had a 13 percent turnout, and Detroit, which produced less than 20 percent.

New Yorker writer, George Packer, wrote that these numbers predict not a blue or red swing sweeping the country, but a “cynical gray.”

Part of this apathy stems from an exclusive primary process. Voters are marginalized in New Jersey and New York as only members of registered parties are allowed to vote in the primaries. Primary candidates dominate news cycles and funding swings before independent candidates can have their voices heard.

Further, hyper-partisanship in Congress, as well as a flailing legislative record and a government shutdown, have turned off more constituents to politics than ever before.

Joe Nocera of the New York Times suggested adopting Australia’s system of mandatory voting, where people who fail to show up at the polls are fined. While extreme, he also proposed more moderate measures such as moving elections to the weekend, open primaries, and ending gerrymandering.

All suggestions have merits, but one of the major issues lie within the fact that with more and more people identifying as independents, they remain alienated from the current voting process. Change doesn’t need to stem from fines if you don’t show up on Election Day; they need to start much earlier with engaging these voters from the very beginning of the electoral process.

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