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November 27, 2014

Editorial: Absence at the polls

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Posted: Tuesday, June 10, 2014 6:00 pm

We assume a great deal about elections.

Namely, that Americans care deeply about the politics that drives them — who’s running, who’s elected, who funds candidates’ campaigns, who’s corrupt and who makes wise decisions. Democracy works best when people pay attention and are engaged.

Problem is, we’re not engaged. By and large, we’ve checked out, leaving Election Day decisions to an alarmingly small percentage of Americans. We’ll complain about politicians and lap up the vitriol spewed by the worst of cable news’ political pundits, but too few of us try to become part of the solution, whatever it may be.

Case in point: Only 21 percent of registered voters in Alabama cast ballots in this month’s primaries, according to data from the Alabama Secretary of State’s office. That equates to 631,000 voters — or, put another way, the smallest number in 16 years.

Mid-year elections historically lag behind presidential-year tallies, and the mid-year primaries often record the lowest numbers. Those traits, when combined with the utter lack of enthusiasm about this year’s Alabama primaries, are why the state’s June turnout was abysmally low.

Come November, it’s doubtful much will change.

That’s part pessimism and part research, thanks to recent surveys from the Brookings Institution, the Public Religion Research Institute and Pew data-crunchers.

Without overdosing on these researchers’ reams of new findings, what follows are the two most cogent points.

  • Only 1 in 6 Americans say they are tracking the congressional campaigns for their state or district very closely.
  • The more irate you are about American politics — the Obama administration and Congress, namely — the more inclined you are to head to the polls in November. Eighty-six percent of polled Americans aligned with the tea party movement said they’ll vote this fall. Republicans followed at 78 percent. And Democrats? Only 57 percent of those polled said they would cast ballots in November.

Alabama’s problem — one of them, at least — is its return to one-party politics that hampers more than it helps. Once the sole domain of Democrats, the state now is solidly Republican, top to bottom, and doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon. As assumptions go, it’s wise to believe more Alabamians would bother to vote if both parties fielded better candidates who campaigned on local issues instead of national-party talking points.

Maybe that’s why so many of our neighbors aren’t bothered much on Election Day.

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