^ Register of Deeds candidate Paul Nutting seeking nomination paper signatures : can’t get them from non voters …

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In local elections here in Massachusetts, hardly anyone votes. Even for Governor, or for Mayor of Boston, only about 37.5 percent of registered voters cast ballots; and not very eligible adult is registered. In the recent special election, to choose a new State Senator for the District I vote in, with no less than seven (7) candidates seeking, barely 17 percent of registered voters participated. The turnout in the Town of Winthrop was about 45 percent, in the rest of the District, barely 12 percent. Add the unregistered, and the actual participating portion might be fewer than one adult in ten.

That so few people vote has major consequences : vested interests almost completely control the outcome. Yet people do not seem to mind, even though they constantly complain about how the system is “rigged.” It is not rigged; but if people do not vote, rigging has an easy path.

For those whose work is politics, or government, those who do not vote do not exist. Same for eligibles who do not register. Candidates go to voters who actually vote : why should they NOT do that ? If you do not vote, you can’t help a candidate win. Campaigns have limited time; it’s hard enough to get to the 12 percent of Boston voters — about 50,000 — who actually do vote all the time — so-called “super voters” — much less trying to reach voters who don’t vote much or at all. The result is that campaigns as a matter of course stick to “super voters” and avoid everyone else; and the more campaigns in which only “super voters” are reached, the less everyone else feels connected to the entire election system. No wonder that, at the local level, we are becoming less a democracy and more an oligarchy.

Non-participation by most voters even affects Presidential elections. Two generations ago, 80 to 90 percent (sometimes even more) of voters balloted for President; today the figure is more like two-thirds. No wonder that so many voters — and all who don’t register at all — feel that our government is not ours.

Yet the dynamics of voting and of government run on paradox, or, should I say, a series of paradoxes, by the divergences of which non-voters find themselves torn :

First : “my one vote doesn’t count.” Not by itself it doesn’t, but in community with the 10,000s of citizens like you, it counts for everything. Politicians don’t only attend to one “super voter” at a time; they are well aware of which communities have many “super voters”: and which do not. Communities with many “super voters” have a whole lot more collective influence than communities with few such.

Second : “the lobbyists decide everything, so why bother ?” Lobbyists do decide a lot of what is done in City Halls and in the legislature. But those who get lobbied are well aware of the “super voter” communities in their Districts and how they will react to this or that lobbed point of view.

Third : voting is not as easy as the civics books tell us it is. You have to register, which means that you have to know here and how to do so, including knowing what identification you will need to produce. Second, once registered, you have to know WHERE to vote, and when. Third, you need to be familiar with the type of ballot used in your voting place. Fourth, you have to feel comfortable about registering, voting, and ball0ting. and about the various officials you will answer to do at each step of the process : officials who you probably do not know and in many cases do not look like you or speak your native language. The opportunities are many for feeling not quite at ease with, or belonging to, the voting system.

Fourth : if your vote counts, as all those wonderful public service posters tell you, how come no one ever asks you to vote for him or her ? If you’re a sometime voter, or newly registered, you are not on a “super voter” list and thus — from a campaign point of view — are a second priority at best. Long ago, local campaigns used to acquire the “supplementary” list, of newly registered voters, and send them a special  mailing welcoming them to the voting process and asking for a vote. Today, few campaigns have the money for such a mailing, and even fewer have a volunteer force available to get such a mailing ready. Most campaigns mailings today are done by professional mail companies. Forty years ago, volunteers did them all : hundreds of volunteers would gather in a huge room and spend hours and hours “doing a mailing.” Volunteers who did that became very, very committed, physically, to the campaign; it was almost a necessity for them to go around their neighborhood talking about the campaign they were in. Today, people do not do that because they work twelve hours a day to pay their bills, or because they aren’t asked, or both. And as the degree of bodily campaign participation has fallen, so has the degree of voting. Forty years ago, most campaign vo0lunteers were adults. Today, most are students : because the adults are out working two jobs, or overtime, and haven’t time to campaign for anyone, maybe not even to vote.

Today, campaigns rely not on staff but on consultants. Campaign specialists know a great deal about micro-targeting voting preferences and about how to frame  campaign messages visually, about opposition research, about design and polling; and yes, all of these are helpful; but the first weapons a candidate needs are staff to do the basic record keeping and outreach, supporters to hold “meet and greets” and to help door-knock, a personal aide to drive the candidate to places and to accompany him or her in all that he or she does, and a solid presence among influential people in the district. It takes years to assemble all these; no consultant can wave a wand and gather it. Consultants are a kind of short cut; and in campaigns there are no short cuts : every voter has one vote to give, and every voter needs to be asked, separately, for his or her vote.

Short cuts are the bane of voter participation. About 20 years ago one of the laziest of short cuts, the “stand out,” became de rigeur. There isn’t much physical effort involved in standing at an intersection holding a sign; but somehow candidates have come to feel that stand-outs are an apple pie thing : waving at drivers who are trying to pay attention to the road, not at you, and who probably don’t live in the district anyway. But “standing out” is easier than door knocking house to house , or than phone-banking, and so stand-outs become the big thing even though to my mind they are almost complete waste of signs and of people. Stand-outs also send the the wrong message to maybe-voters. To vote, you have, physically, to GO TO a voting place and DO the act of balloting. Standing out symbolizes nothing of the kind. If anything, it sends a negative message to voters : ‘we’re here, and you are not. We belong; you don’t.”

To sum up : if only a small percent of adults register AND vote, the people who constitute a special interest group control the outcome : almost always to the detriment of the average voter. Democracy is supposed to be the voice of ALL the people, not just of a special few. Not voting – and perforce, not registering — assures that democracy will look like something you and I and Tom, Dick, Jane and Lisa down the street do not belong to and probably should be very suspicious of. We are at that point now.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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