Let’s Have Lower Turnout

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.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

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?


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

8 thoughts on “Let’s Have Lower Turnout

  1. Tough choice. You’re voting for the party of insurrection or the party of riots and secession.

    Last night’s 60 minutes segment on social media fueling extremism was fascinating.


    1. The GOP either denying or ignoring climate change is the deciding factor for me. Converting to renewables would not only help fight climate change – which we greatly need, it would reduce foreign energy dependence, increase good jobs in Wisconsin specifically, and reduce air pollution. But most of the GOP will have none of it because fossil fuel donors line their pockets.


  2. Your framing of the argument is a demonstration of what you are arguing against. The party which you oppose is the party of insurrection – continues fueling the hyper-partisan divide you complain about. People voting will be the death of democracy? Why not join Beschloss and Reiner and say that if Republicans win your children will die and Republicans will literally kill you?

    Acknowledge, as you have in the past, that the Democratic party is continuously f’ing up. Then make the courageous move to saying you could understand why sane rational people are flocking to the Republican party as a result and some of the rift could begin to heal.

    While I will vote for many Republicans in this election, I do not look forward, and hopefully I am mistaken, to one-sided Republicanism.


      1. I don’t_think_so.

        Threatening nuclear war, dismantling the Constitution, aggressively destroying societal norms are only a few of the ways I come to my assessment of the Democratic party.

        I am trans-partisan. I don’t care for either party, as neither has represented the interests of the vast majority of citizens for an awfully long time. If the Democrats were doing something right, I would support them. For example, I probably would have supported a Tulsi Gabbard Presidential ticket. But the Democrats f’ed that one up too.


    1. I mean, he regularly – almost daily – acknowledges Dems are effing up on this blog.
      I have no problem admitting that, I agree in many areas they are.
      Their hard-line stances and refusal to admit nuance on issues like high school trans-athletes, coming up with the dumbest catch phrase in recent memory with “defund the police”, and so forth. What more do you want?

      That said, I will not vote for any Republican who continues to claim the election was stolen, attempts to downplay January 6th, or denies or ignores climate change. That eliminates immediately basically all Republicans – and certainly all the ones on my ballot.
      The Wisconsin brand of GOP anti-democratic moves over the past decade from the lame duck session stripping Evers and Kaul of power, to refusing for four years to even hold confirmation hearings on nearly all of Evers appointees so they can either fire them at will or deny strong environmental regulations by holding the DNR Natural Resources Board in stasis further solidifies this position.

      What, may I ask, has led to your decision to vote for the GOP this election?


  3. “We were a stronger, better and happier democracy when turnout was low…”

    That’s an interesting opinion, and I say that primarily to emphasize that it’s an opinion not a fact. Heck, we could just go back to only white male land owners being able to vote – as the founders intended. That is much less messy, you’re right about that. Happier too – for them at least.

    The complaints you raise have everything to do with the structure and rules of our political system and nothing to do with voter turnout. Regular people are actually pretty smart – if our system allowed us to actually have a say in this mess I think we’d be better off.

    High turnout should be our goal because people had to fight for the right to vote and voting is the first step that gives the people a chance to be in charge of our own lives. Low turnout is a sign of hopelessness. I don’t think a hopeless population is a good thing, but feel free to differ in your opinion. I know plantation owners during slavery wanted to keep a hopeless population on hand, that’s for sure. I doubt our modern-day rich and powerful feel particularly different themselves.


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