It’s an article of faith among Democrats that high turnout is good for both democracy and them. There’s no evidence to support either claim.
This year 40 million votes have already been cast before election day and we’ll likely set a modern day record for midterm turnout. And the result of all that democracy on steroids? The Democrats will certainly lose the House; the only question is by how much. It’s also more likely than not that Republicans will win the Senate and a slew of governor’s races, perhaps here in Wisconsin. And even if Tony Evers ekes out a win, the GOP could capture a veto proof majority here. Democrats will be down to only two Congressional seats when we lose the Third CD in southwest Wisconsin to election denier Derrick Van Orden.
In fact, there’s no historical evidence that high turnout boosts Democrats, even going back before the age of Trump. In an article in National Affairs from last year, two academic researchers wrote, “Both Republicans and Democrats are convinced — and have been for some time — that higher turnout will help Democrats and hurt Republicans. The conviction is widely shared, but inaccurate. Put simply, there is no evidence that turnout is correlated with partisan vote choice.”
So, if high turnout doesn’t help Democrats, is it at least good for democracy? Hundreds of election deniers will win office tomorrow and some of those offices will be in local and state positions that actually run elections, setting up all kinds of trouble for 2024. With all that democracy producing all those election denying officeholders, it would appear that democracy could kill democracy.
The fundamental problem is that what’s driving all this turnout is not textbook, League of Women Voters, town hall meeting style civic engagement. No, it’s bitterness and fear. We’re not so much voting for our guys as voting against their guys. There are plenty of Republicans who despise Donald Trump and his acolytes but they’ll vote for them anyway because they think the “socialists” in the Democratic Party are out to destroy America. There are lots of Democrats who question the priorities and values of their own party elites, but will be damned if they’ll vote for the party of insurrection. (Count me among that latter group.) This is not the vote as a tool of democracy, but the vote as a bludgeon to punish those on the other side of the cultural divide.
This, by the way, is one reason that I’m in a small minority of folks who does not like early voting. The point of voting weeks in advance is that there’s nothing to decide. It doesn’t matter what a candidate might say in the closing weeks or what world or local events might change your perspective. You’re going to vote straight party line no matter what. We could really make voting easy is if we would just allow people to designate in advance which ticket they’ll endorse. Just vote me Democratic up and down the ballot until you hear from me otherwise.
It’s true that early voting might be more of a symptom of the disease than the problem itself, but it does reenforce the notion that there’s no point in even listening to the arguments.
It’s clear that all of this aggressive voting is not a sign of civic health. Quite the opposite. We were a stronger, better and happier democracy when turnout was low and people griped that there just wasn’t much difference between the two parties.
I’ve been researching a book about Wisconsin politics in the 1980’s. I came across a memo written for Democratic candidates in 1986 by a premier pollster in those days, Peter Hart. In it Hart tells his clients that his polling and focus groups tell him that voters in 1986 don’t care much about party identification or even issues. Their top concern is the character of the candidate.
In 1986 voter turnout nationwide was 36%. And one result in that election was that Democratic Gov. Tony Earl lost to Tommy Thompson. When Earl called Thompson to concede, Tommy asked him if they could still remain friends. Earl replied that of course they could.
By tomorrow we’ll likely exceed 50% turnout. We’re not likely to hear about the same kind of exchange between Evers and Tim Michels, no matter which way it goes. So, answer this question for me: high turnout should be our goal because?