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Ballot Complicity 

How the media is shrinking voter turnout

  • Caleb Walsh illustration

Idahoans voted in their primaries earlier this week. I'm writing this before the final vote is known, but here's a prediction: While a lot of people will have voted, too many people will have skipped an election that often ends up determining the winner.

click to enlarge reuter.jpg

Here's another prediction in which I'm confident: There will be a series of editorials and talking heads on local TV decrying low voter turnout and how it damages our democracy. I find these commentaries troubling. Because here's the thing: Editorials criticizing the lack of participation in the voting booths actually normalize not voting.

Research has shown that people are more likely to vote when they believe other people they know are also voting. This fact has led to some underhanded campaign tactics, like those used by Ted Cruz in his presidential run.

Cruz's campaign sent voters an official-looking "F" scorecard on their voting record and told them how everyone around them was voting more — which often wasn't the case. The tactic of telling people that their neighbors voted more than they did worked, and Cruz won the Iowa caucus in part based on using the mailing to turn out his base.

On the other hand, people are less likely to vote when they believe others are not voting. Consequently, rants about how nobody votes anymore actually increase the problem and lead to even more people not voting. I worry that even this very column could be adding to the problem.

The second problem with the media's obsession with telling stories about how people don't vote and chastising the electorate for not caring is that too often the reality of passionate, engaged voters is ignored. More people voted this year in Republican presidential primaries and caucuses than ever before. At the same time, while Bernie Sanders is bringing passionate supporters to the polls, Hillary Clinton has received millions more votes than any other candidate running this year. Make no mistake: people are voting.

After the 2012 election, there were a series of articles about how many pollsters had gotten the results wrong, some predicting an easy win by Mitt Romney. What was too often buried in these reports was what the pundits missed: A unexpectedly turnout by young, black, and Latino Americans.

Voting is incredibly common. Millions of Americans vote every year, and the way modern elections are won is by getting your supporters out to vote. It's true that there has been a recent surge in attempting to block voters from the polls through various voter suppression and disenfranchisement laws, but these laws only underline the desire to block a rising electorate, not the lack of one.

The media (including this columnist) need to start talking more about voting, and start to reinforce the basic obligation we all have, emphasizing that millions of us are fulfilling our obligation each year to show up and participate in determining who represents us and our interests. We talk a lot these days about our nation's growing distrust of our government. The solution is participation — to transform government back into a force that we control and have ownership of, rather than something beyond our understanding or influence.

Millions of us are already engaged in this work. You should be, too. ♦

John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, has been active in protecting the environment, expanding LGBT rights and Idaho's Republican Party politics.


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