Nonpartisan Elections: The First Step to Increasing Voter Turnout

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The common misconception is that everyone who supports nonpartisan election reform automatically believes it will result in higher voter turnout — that it alone will cure voter apathy. No, it won’t. However, what it will do is reform a system to take control out of the hands of political parties and put it where it belongs — the voter.

Research studies suggest that voter participation is driven by perception and motivation, and both are influenced by the media. When looking at the history of voter turnout in presidential primaries, for instance, the primaries and caucuses that receive the highest turnouts are always the early states. Why? It is because there is much more media coverage and the candidates devote much more time to these states.

The perception among voters is that these elections matter the most therefore their votes matter more.

It is far from uncommon, however, to hear from voters that they typically don’t vote because they believe their vote doesn’t matter in the end. Many citizens believe that the current electoral system disenfranchises the average voter and doesn’t give them a meaningful voice at the ballot box.

With this in mind, it only seems obvious that the first step to change the way voters perceive the electoral process is to give them a system that doesn’t disenfranchise millions of voters by denying them access to the crucial first step in the election process — the primary.

In 47 states, millions of voters are either denied access to the primary process completely by the major parties or they must sacrifice their First Amendment right of non-association to participate. Even though these voters contribute to the public funds that pay for these elections, they have no meaningful say on who will be on the general election ballot.

This results in one of two things: The voter participates in the general election and picks a candidate with a “lesser of two evils” mentality or they concede that their vote doesn’t matter because they have been marginalized by the system and decide not to vote.

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Voters should feel confident that when they go to the polls, their vote counts. But, in order for this to happen voters need to know there are better alternatives and there needs to be reform.

Hyper-polarization in Congress has reached a boiling point, but it is not because the American public has become more polarized. This is a myth that commentators in the mainstream media like to turn to because it is in their interest to preserve the red-blue, left-right paradigm. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy: create a two-sided political debate, and the people who participate in the news cycle will naturally try to represent one of the two “sides.” It is good for business, but it also causes voters to shrug their shoulders in defeat as they believe there is no escape from politics as usual.

An idea the mainstream media refuses to entertain is that the 113th Congress is the most divided because it is the least representative. That would be bad for business, but it would be the truth.

When less than 5 percent of the electorate ends up choosing a candidate because general elections are inconsequential in most states, lawmakers legislate to appease this small voting bloc because they are worried about being primaried. Lawmakers should not be beholden to just a small, ideological base. They should be beholden to all voters.

There are some who believe that stronger political parties will result in higher voter turnout. But, how should the strength of a party be measured? By the elections a party wins, or by how many people they represent?

Nonpartisan elections will not change voter turnout overnight. Voters who are turned off by a political dialogue that only sees blue and red, campaigns that rely on negativity, and a historical election system that brands representatives by party, rather than their individuality, will be slow to return to the polls, even in a nonpartisan system.

But, in a society that increasingly rejects party labels, nonpartisan primaries give voters a stronger voice at the ballot box. Alone, this will not reverse turnout trends. But as the new elections change campaign dynamics, representative accountability, and, in turn, the news cycle, we may witness a long-term reverse in these trends.

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