The primary elections for city offices held September 9, 2003,
were barely noticed by most New Yorkers. Significant only in the lack of attention
they garnered, the primaries were one of the lowest turnout elections in recent
memory. Although there were a couple of close races, in the end, no incumbents
Although low turnout is considered by many to be an example of what is wrong
with the voting process, it doesn't always have to be a sign of foreboding.
Sometimes low turnout is an indication that the electorate is basically pleased
ways things are, and doesn't feel an overwhelming need to make major changes.
history would back up that theory. Heavy voter turnout tends to produce change:
getting rid of an incumbent or putting a different party into power
the entire make-up of a legislative body. Conversely, low voter turnout can
be expected to send incumbents back for another term, or reward prohibitive
or shore up the dominant political party structure.
Not always, of course. But
So low turnout can be a sign that voters are satisfied, or at least
not extremely disgruntled. But low turnout can also be an indication of an
feels disconnected from the political process. If voters feel their vote isn't
going to matter, or isn't going to count, or isn't going to be counted, this
will understandably turn them off the idea of making the effort to get to the
polls. And if they feel there is no difference between the various candidates
running, and no real choices available to them, and no potential for change
pending the outcome of the election, they will be further alienated from the
Whatever the reason for low voter turnout, it is far from the ideal.
The basis for the efficacy and legitimacy of a representative democracy is
of consensus: of everyone's opinions and choices having been equally weighed
and the majority, or at least the plurality, emerging.
In party primaries, there
is a marked correlation between the increasingly low turnout and the declining
influence of political parties themselves. It
be difficult to mark the causal connection: whether the low turnout led to
the lessened influence of political parties, or the reverse, the weakened party
is the reason for the lower turnout.
In either case, political party primaries
have always been an insider's game: so-called "family business." The
party faithful, those few who are heavily involved in party organization and
activities, are the ones who consistently
turn out and vote. The up side is that decisions about who will represent the
party on the general election ballot are made by those who are well-informed
about who is running, who are aware of what those candidates represent, and
who are actively seeking an advocate for their concerns.
The down side is that
this tends to produce two major candidates (if that; in many districts only
one party manages to field a candidate at all) who are
respective choices of a tiny percentage of the voting age population, at
either end of the political spectrum.
And the low turnout in this year's primary
is especially significant as New Yorkers prepare to vote on a ballot question
in November. In the matter of
should the party primary system be abolished, and replaced with a non-partisan
election? If the law was changed, and New York did go to a non-partisan
election, the party primary would be replaced by an open election, and any
voter would be eligible to vote for his or her choice, regardless of party
or affiliation. The top two vote getters would then move on to the run-off,
which would replace the general election.
Advocates of the proposed system
argue that ending party primaries will increase voter turnout. And this is
one possibility. It is also significant
however, that in an adversarial system, candidates tend to focus on persuading
voters, not engaging new ones. Most campaigns are not interested in increasing
voter turnout overall, only in turning out their own known supporters.
in a general election, the work of Get Out the Vote, or GOTV, has historically
been a function of the party. It would be difficult to predict
take on the expensive and exhausting task of coaxing and transporting
people to the polls on election day once the party system was no longer
Turnout on election day can be affected by any number of
factors: the weather, traffic patterns, the overall political climate. And
that this year's party primary and the November general election
are an exception to the regular election schedule. New York City had the
round of elections
just two years ago, but instead of serving the normal four-year terms,
were elected to two-year terms in order to incorporate the latest
But whatever factors may affect turnout, it remains, for now,
largely predictable. Voting, while a choice, is also a behavior. Like many
behaviors, it is
not only purposeful, but habitual. And changing a habit, good or
bad, is never
Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.
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