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Getting the government we vote for...or don’t vote for
Written by Kerry Ashmore
Posted  9/5/2012
Okay, this won’t be just another "shame on us" editorial tirade about low voter turnout in the Aug. 14 primary. But—just in case it hasn’t been said at all—shame on us for the low voter turnout in the Aug. 14 primary.

That said, let’s move on to more constructive discussions of the issue.

To be fair, Northeast Minneapolis voter turnout (13.3 percent) was better than the statewide average (11.7 percent), by about one and a half percentage points. Columbia Heights/Hilltop turnout was a little better (13.6 percent) and St. Anthony turnout was a lot better (17.2 percent). Combined, our turnout was 14.0 percent.

Garrison Keillor would probably want us to take the calculation a step further...just how far above average are we?

A quick manipulation of the stats—comparing the local turnout percentages with the statewide turnout percentage—could lead us to the conclusion that Northeast Minneapolis’ turnout was 13.7 percent higher than the state average. Heights/Hilltop’s turnout was 16.2 percent higher than the state average. And St. Anthony’s turnout was a whopping 47 percent greater than the state average. Put us all together and our turnout is 19.7 percent above the state average.

So, we’re considerably above average, even here in the state where "above average" has become the expected cultural norm. We’re above average among the above average. Can it get any better than that?

In a word, yes.

The other side of the statistics tells a different story.

The striking statistic: Six out of seven registered voters in this area did not go to the polls Aug. 14, or make arrangements to vote in other ways.

Six out of seven.

We’re not forgetting that statewide, it was closer to nine out of 10 who didn’t vote, and we did a lot better. But six out of seven staying away from the polls is still a big problem for our community to work on.

Some of those people wanted to vote, and expected to vote on election day, but faced an emergency—such as a sudden illness or injury in the family—that didn’t allow them to get away. Employees are supposed to get time off to vote, but every employer might not comply with that law, and for their employees, that also qualifies as an emergency. Some are self-employed, and faced a business emergency. We understand, and they all get a pass. An emergency is an emergency. Just vote twice next time.

Okay, we didn’t mean that.

But seriously, there couldn’t have been all that many emergencies. For most, it was either a conscious, short-term choice—I’m not going to vote today—or a long-term choice to pay little enough attention to the electoral process that they didn’t realize they had the opportunity to vote.

It’s only a primary election; how important can it be? some might ask. Well, it’s very important, for reasons that are obvious and for reasons that are not so obvious.

Obvious: When the general election comes along in November, many will again stay home, because they don’t like either (any) of the candidates on the ballot for a given office. Had they paid attention and voted in the primary, they would have had some influence in deciding which candidates would appear on the general election ballot. For many, the primary election should be even more important than the general election. It’s your way to make sure that your candidate has the only reasonably-possible chance of taking office (allowing his or her name to appear on the general election ballot), and it’s your way to help ensure that candidates who are not yet ready for prime time don’t have their names on the general election ballot; for some, an equally important task.

Not-so-obvious: Is there a middle-of-the-road commentator anywhere, or a water-cooler pundit anywhere, who hasn’t lamented the polarization of politics in America? The polarization has occurred because candidates with extreme and uncompromising viewpoints—viewpoints that might frighten overwhelming numbers of moderate voters—make it through the primary election process, a juncture at which they could have been stopped. Those with extreme viewpoints know that they don’t need very many votes to get through that process, because so many mainstream voters—in our case, six out of seven—don’t pay attention at primary time. Once the extreme candidates are on the general election ballot, they can moderate their spoken viewpoints enough to get elected, and then put their extreme agenda to work when they get in office. That’s a key reason for the gridlock in Washington D.C., and for the gridlock in St. Paul. Those with extreme viewpoints have learned how to work the system, and are taking it away from those with moderate viewpoints. But that’s the American way, and moderates have no one but themselves to blame if they fail to spot extremist candidates and take care of business at the polls.

We’re not the first ones to say it: Elections have consequences. We get the government we vote for. Or, more accurately, we get the government that voters vote for. With six out of seven staying home on election day, can we honestly say that we don’t deserve any of those "consequences" that come along?

As media people, we know that we play a part—and share responsibility—in the voter turnout successes and failures. We’re eager to hear—and share—what you think we and others can do to make it better.

Northeaster Opinion