Is it worth holding local elections for less than 15% turnout?

The Daily Herald asks whether the low turnout for Tuesday’s local elections in the Chicago area means the elections should not be held:

Voter turnout Tuesday was so poor area election officials were calling the effort a waste of tax dollars…

Numbers show no county in the area managed even a 15 percent turnout. Suburban Cook County faired the best overall with a 13.8 percent turnout, according to the summary report available online. Much of even that low number is attributable to interest in the special primary to replace Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. In other places, such as Palatine Township, the top vote-getter was township clerk candidate Lisa Moran with a mere 1,612 votes.

Without a Congressional draw on the ballot, Lake County logged a turnout of a little more than 11 percent. The low total left Lake County Clerk Willard Helander scratching her head…

In DuPage County, a narrowly focused ballot fueled a 3.9 percent voter turnout, officials said. Tuesday’s primary affected voters in only two precincts who could make a choice between five candidates for Aurora Ward 9 alderman…

Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham took that sentiment one step further. His county logged a 2.9 percent turnout. That works out to about one vote cast per minute in all of the county for the entire election day, Cunningham said. That’s not enough to justify the cost of running the election.

Those are some low turnout totals. To be honest, I didn’t even know there was anything to be voted on in DuPage County and I keep up with local news and regularly read the newspaper. If it hadn’t been for some of the coverage of New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg giving money in the race for Jesse Jackson Jr.’s former seat, I may not have known anything was being voted on.

Some obvious points (to me):

1. Why not vote for these offices and other matters during bigger elections? Yes, this may mean there is more for voters to consider at a time and it is hard to keep up with it all, but at least people would have more of an idea to vote.

2. In response to the low turnout, one county clerk asked whether people care about their local government. My short answer: no, not really. Most communities don’t generate the kind of involvement or major issues that consistently divide the community that would drive people to vote. Even in talking to local public officials, some of them will tell you that they got involved in local government because they saw something they wanted to change and then got involved.

3. I would love to see this story include some data about local voter turnout over time. We know that election turnout has dropped even with the bigger elections. What about these smaller elections? Is there a “golden age” when people used to care more about local government and voted?

Argument: rural American voters are being disenfranchised

A member of the Hoover Institution argues rural Americans are losing their right to self-governance:

With each passing election, rural and small town Americans have ever less influence on their state and national governments and ever declining control over the governance of their own communities. Their lives are increasingly controlled from distant state capitals and from the even more distant Washington, D.C., by politicians with little incentive to pay attention to their country cousins. To some extent, their disenfranchisement is the inevitable result of a century of urbanization and economic centralization. But the erosion of self-governance in rural America is also the result of a generally well intentioned but simplistic understanding of democracy and the associated elimination of institutional protections of local democratic governance.

Two ideas have been central to this effective disenfranchisement of rural America. First, that one person/one vote is an inviolable principle of democratic government under the United States Constitution. Second, that the winners of elections owe allegiance only to those who voted for them, no matter how close the margin of victory…

The reality is that rural communities have experienced a declining influence on state governance ever since reapportionment was first mandated in the 1960s. Many will say that this is as it should be. Rural and small town voters constitute minorities in every state, and minorities are supposed to lose in a democracy. But that is the same argument made against the Electoral College, given the possibility that a candidate who wins the popular vote might lose in the Electoral College, and it is an argument that also would condemn the much greater counter-majoritarian nature of the U.S. Senate.

Different and diverse majorities in each state are combined in the U.S. Senate to pursue national policies that are truly national and not just what will serve the interests of the nine states in which the majority of the nation’s population resides. There is no similar safeguard at the state level for different and diverse majorities in small town and rural communities that happen to constitute the red regions of the blue states—though there once was.

Prior to the 1964 United States Supreme Court decision in Reynolds v. Sims, most state legislatures included one house apportioned on the basis of population and a second chamber apportioned on the basis of counties or other geographical regions. Many of the former had not been reapportioned for decades, leaving growing urban areas with less representation per capita than rural regions. On the basis of the principle of one person/one vote, the Court found that the failure of most states to regularly reapportion their lower houses put them in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

The first thing I thought of when reading this argument was that this is a long-standing tension in American history. Thus, we have mechanisms in national government that are meant to limit some of this. From the beginning, the interests of the more urban North were pitted against the interests of the more rural South. These issues still remain even though the geography has changed since then in several important ways: there are plenty of rural areas in mid-America as well as in the West and we have a broad middle category, actually the most populous space for Americans to live, called the suburbs. Additionally, party lines have shifted.

But, we could take this in another direction and think more creatively about how to select elected officials. Huffman argues the Supreme Court limited the voice of rural voters in states when it went to a system of officials per population rather than by geographical boundaries. What might happen if we went to a system where districts were drawn only within a single geographic group: cities, suburbs, and more rural areas? Huffman seems to be suggesting that the interests of a city-dweller in Chicago or Atlanta may be much similar to each other than representatives across northern Illinois where there districts can cover all three geographic types. Suburban legislators across metropolitan regions or states might have similar interests compared to those who represent other types of geographies.

I just have to ask: would conservatives be arguing for the voters in rural areas if it were primarily Democrats in rural areas as opposed to Republicans?

Could Condoleezza Rice run for president…as a single women?

After her speech at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night, some suggested Condoleezza Rice could make good presidential material. Some factors might not be in her favor: she is a woman (we have elected a black president but not a woman) and she has an interesting background that includes being a professor, provost, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of State (not exactly a traditional path to the White House). However, I wondered about another factor: could a single person become President?

While more Americans are living alone and marriage might be pursued by some people more than others, Americans seem to prefer national leaders who are married and have families. Many might ask: how could a single president understand the plight of families? If the single candidate didn’t have children, what would they know about raising children?

Since at least the late 1930s, Gallup has asked about what kind of president Americans would be willing to vote for. A few of the results:

The results are based on a June 7-10 Gallup poll, updating a question Gallup first asked in 1937 in reference to a female, Jewish, or Catholic candidate and has asked periodically since then, with additional candidate characteristics added to the list. The question has taken on added relevance in recent years as a more diverse group of candidates has run for president. This year, Mitt Romney is poised to become the first Mormon to win a major-party presidential nomination. However, Americans’ willingness to vote for a Mormon has changed little in 45 years.

Notwithstanding the Mormon trend, Gallup’s history on this question shows growing acceptance for all other types of candidates over time. That includes atheists, whose acceptability as candidates surpassed 50% for the first time last summer but have typically ranked at the bottom of the list whenever the question has been asked.

In 1937, less than half of Americans said they would vote for a Jewish or female presidential candidate; now 90% or more would. The same applies to voting for a black candidate compared with 1958. Over time, Americans’ acceptance of blacks and women as candidates has increased the most…

Americans of all political party affiliations are nearly unanimous in saying they would vote for a black, female, Catholic, Hispanic, or Jewish president. Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to say they would vote for a presidential candidate who is gay, Muslim, or an atheist. Republicans, in turn, are more likely to say they would vote for a Mormon.

As far as this page suggests, Gallup has not asked about whether candidates should be married or have a family.

It would be interesting to see this play out…

Tracking President Obama’s “God talk”

Decades after the sociologist Robert Bellah introduced the term “civil religion,” academics are continuing to track how politicians talk about religion in the public sphere. Here is an overview of how President Obama is increasing his use of religious language in recent days:

President Obama is “ramping up his ‘God talk’ for the re-election campaign,” says political scientist John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life.

But Green and two other experts who track religious rhetoric in presidential politics speculate this strategy to connect with evangelical voters may not work for Obama…

These kinds of God mentions won’t move the dial for conservative evangelicals but, Green says, they could be just right for ambivalent voters who “don’t want a hard-edged faith shaping national politics.”…

Questioning someone’s religious sincerity is totally a factor of whether you already like that person. Baylor University sociologist Paul Froese says,

If Obama held a prayer rally, it would never work. People who don’t like him won’t believe him.

I wonder how the average American would react to this article. On one hand, the argument here is that appealing to audiences with the “right” religious language matters for votes. On the other hand, is this simply ammunition to make some people more cynical about the use of religious language in election seasons? Politicians have to walk a fine line of appearing sincere but not too exclusive so as to alienate potential voters.

More seriously, this will continue to matter in the months ahead as Americans get longer looks at Republican challengers (and the article contrasts Rick Perry’s approach to religious language). I hope we will continue to get updates on this from these same academics.

It doesn’t matter which party is in charge when an economic crisis happens; they will be punished

As part of a piece looking at whether President Obama should have ever been compared to FDR, Megan McArdle suggests one of the cultural narratives of the Democratic Party doesn’t hold up: the Great Depression wasn’t a “Republican problem” because when looking at other countries, whichever party was in power at the start of the Depression was punished at the polls:

Yet even recognizing that FDR got tremendously lucky in his choice of election years does not cause McElvaine to question the Ur-Myth; instead, he segues into a complaint that Obama needs to be feistier, like FDR was.

Smart progressive Ezra Klein, however, offers what I think is the correct take:

The pat story behind FDR’s victory and the ensuing decades of mostly Democratic dominance is that the president got the policy right and the politics followed. Whatever you believe about FDR’s policies, a more international perspective will disabuse you of the notion that the golden age for the Democratic Party was an ideological triumph rather than an accident of history. As Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, has written, globally, the pattern is clear: Whichever party was in power when the Great Depression hit was booted out of office, and whichever party was in power when the global recovery took hold reaped huge political benefits.

“In the U.S.,” wrote Bartels, “voters replaced Republicans with Democrats and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Sweden, voters replaced Conservatives with Liberals, then with Social Democrats, and the economy improved.

Of course, cultural narratives aren’t necessarily rooted in facts but rather in the story that a group or nation or other party wants to tell. Looking at data can help us figure out the veracity of a narrative. This sounds like a good example of using comparative data: by looking at other cases, one can see that what might seem to be a “common sense” observation based on the United States doesn’t necessarily hold up. What we would also want to do is to look at other economic crises, both in the United States and abroad, to see how the severity of the crisis, length of the crisis, relative standing of other countries, and other historical and social factors affect election outcomes after the economic crisis starts.

The takeaway for politicians and political parties? Beware of running for election if the economy took a dive while you or your people were in office.

Can the NFL over-hype itself?

As the NFC and AFC title games slowly approach, I wonder: can the NFL over-hype its product?

On one hand, it appears not. NFL television ratings have been excellent this year (regular season stats here). The league has a number of stars that draw a wide range of attention, from the good (Tom Brady, Peyton Manning) to the bad (Brett Favre, Michael Vick’s sage in recent years). Particularly at this time of year, talk about the NFL dominates the airwaves – a number of other sports are mid-season. The final four teams remaining in the playoffs are historic franchises that have passionate fan bases. Even with Bill Simmon’s recent claim that there is “there’s at least one great [NBA] game” each night, other sports can’t match the popularity of the NFL. The NFL even thinks it can sell $200 tickets for a “party plaza” outside of the Super Bowl.

On the other hand, it is A LOT of talk. In the weeks between playoff games, it seems that ESPN can’t stop talking about the next match-ups. In Chicago, everyone has been talking Bears-Packers. The teams already have played twice so how much more is there to discuss? Could it get to the point where fans tune out the week before and are just happy to get the game over with? And interestingly, it only gets worse for the Super Bowl: then we get the infamous “Media Day.” Though the Super Bowl gets tremendous ratings, how often does the game match the hype? In my lifetime of watching Super Bowls, I distinctly remember being disappointed by most of them. (A couple stand out in memory: the Giants-Bills match-up in 1991, Rams and Titans in 2000, the Bears-Colts in 2007, Patriots-Giants in 2008, Steelers-Cardinals in 2009.)

From a broader perspective, there is no guarantee that the popularity of the NFL will be maintained over the years, let alone continue to increase. (Gregg Easterbrook, ESPN’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback, points this out.) The first non-sports comparison that comes to mind are presidential elections. Yesterday, the New York Times reported how President Obama is getting his next campaign in order and plans to formally declare his candidacy in two months. From now until November 2012, this is what we will hear about in the news: who will challenge Obama, how much money will be raised, what are the issues, who has the best image, what do the latest polls say, etc. Don’t voters, at least some of them, get burned out by all of this by the time the actual election takes place? The idea that some countries have of holding more defined election seasons, typically announced by the current leader and lasting for a few months, seems preferable to this endless, over-hyped presidential election season.

I am sure someone has done research on over-hyping. For the NFL, the question is when will it saturate its market. Of course, one way around this is to expand your market and head overseas. (They are trying to do this with games in Toronto, London, and Mexico City in recent years. But the NBA is way ahead of them.) In the meantime, the sporting public will get heavy doses of talk, analysis, and replays. I, for one, will be very happy when it finally gets to 2 PM Sunday afternoon and we can actually see whether the Bears and Packers will win.

Looking to secure the suburban vote

Joel Kotkin argues that both major American political parties would do well to develop a strategy that would consistently appeal to the suburban vote. Here is how one journalist describes Kotkin’s view of American politics at the moment:

Demography in the US favors the Democrats. The fastest growing parts of the electorate don’t look good for Republicans.

Job creation will be the biggest public policy theme for some time to come, and Republicans haven’t quite gotten this issue right even as Democrats botch it.

Class, more than race, will determine America’s political future. The wide swath of largely suburban, skilled workers is up for grabs, and neither party has a vision for improving their quality of life – which is why they keep wreaking havoc on each Party’s plans.

Republicans have failed among Latinos and millennials and will pay for it for some time to come if they don’t reverse the trends they’ve helped start.

Kotkin has been talking about this for a while – he suggested right after this last election that the results went against the “creative class” and more middle-class suburbanites voted for Republicans.

So what would a successful suburban strategy look like? When I looked at all the campaign material that came to my house and listened to candidates talk leading up to the last election, many of them were going after the middle class vote: making homeownership a priority, talk about job creation, keeping the American Dream alive. But if Kotkin is right, the middle class swung one way in 2008 and then another way in 2010.

One way to approach this would be to think what suburbanites have historically sought in moving to suburbs: some space, getting away from the city (the noise, health issues, crime, “others”), owning a single-family home, good schools, good jobs, safety (particularly for kids), and a suburban lifestyle. It seems like both parties could approach these issues, though they might do so from different angles.

h/t Instapundit