The fundamental nature of government in America is that it exists, and is made up by, individuals that represent the majority will of the people. Who that majority is and how they come to be the majority is in question with every election, and it comes down to participation.
At the end of the day, no matter how much money is spent, your vote can serve as a veto, or an affirmation. For that matter, your decision to not vote is also a statement. By choosing to not vote, you have ceded your voice to the majority and, by extension, have sided with that majority regardless of whether they agree with you or not.
In Shelby Co. we saw the impact of this last August. While Shelby Co. is strongly Democratic, a surge in participation from Republican areas effectively overrode the more Democratic areas of the county thanks to low countywide voter turnout.
According to the Election Commission, 29.8% of all active registered voters participated in the August elections The election rolls have three race categories: Black, White, and Other. Of these three, only White voters outperformed their percentage of the voting population by over 10 points. Both Black and Other voters participated at levels slightly below their registration percentage (Registration for Black voters is 34.4%, Other is 35.9%, yet only 31.5% & 27.7% participated (Election Report, PDF)).
Many folks have opined on why the August election turned out the way it did, but at the end of the day it’s easy enough to figure out. 72859 registered white voters, who are, more often than not, Republicans showed up to the polls and only 56392 registered black voters, who are more often than not Democrats showed up (“Other” voters made up 49582 votes). Put another way, nearly 40% of all white registered voters showed up to the August election, as opposed to just 27% of all black registered voters and 23% of other voters. Had the groups turned out at similar levels, an additional 61,500 votes would have been at play, likely making all the countywide elections more competitive.
Some have said that the slate of candidates was bad, disorganized and underfunded and that depressed turnout. Others have opined that some in the African-American community didn’t want to get involved in the Herenton-Cohen primary and that explained the low turnout. While both are plausible enough ideas, neither are particularly scientific, nor do they address the reality that there were several candidates on the Democratic slate that were not only qualified, but were better suited to do the job.
In the end, just under 30% of the electorate made an active choice. The other 70% also made a choice. They chose to stay silent. To not participate. To remove themselves from the process for whatever reason.
In that choice, they essentially decided they agree with whatever the majority of participants found, even if, in the end they didn’t like the result. By ceding to this majority, they put the fate of county government in the hands of a tiny fraction of Shelby County voters that made up the majority.
17% of county voters made up the majority in the Mayor’s race. If folks in Memphis wonder why folks in the County think they run things, the answer is, because they do run things. By and large, people in Memphis let them.
Look at it like this. Memphis has 400,000 registered and our precincts brought out 108,000 voters or 27%. Outside of Memphis there are about 200,000 registered and they brought out 70,209, or 35.3%. Had Memphis pulled 35% that would have been a 32,000 vote shift, making every countywide race more competitive. We’ve got the votes to win, but we don’t turn them out. And as long as we don’t, we’re not getting done to, we’re doing it to ourselves.
There are still plenty of open questions about the August election and pending litigation, and no matter what, those questions need to be attended to in a thoughtful manner to ensure the security of our elections. But think about this:
Had those 32,000 showed up, there might be a big difference in who filed the lawsuit, and the way the media has portrayed those litigants.
Had those 32,000 showed up, we might have been talking about a Democratic sweep in a Republican year.
But they didn’t, and if you’re not happy about it and didn’t get off your butt to vote, you didn’t get done to, you did it to yourself.
One Reply to “We Do it to Ourselves”
Another well-researched post, Steve! I also think the Cohen-Herenton primary depressed voter turnout, but maybe for a different reason than you posit here. Steve Cohen was at the top of the ticket, yet all but stopped campaigned after the primary. Sad to say, he knew he had won his race, so saw no reason to spend any money on the general. When the top-of-the-ticket candidate isn’t pouring money and effort into GOTV, the candidates lower on the ticket can’t make up for that. They just don’t have the resources. I know a lot of people have blamed McWherter for this very reason: he was a lackluster candidate who hurt all the candidates down-ticket. But can you really blame McWherter for the lack of black turnout in Memphis & Shelby County? Cohen’s stronghold is in inner city Memphis. If he can’t or won’t turn out the African American vote, then McWherter certainly can’t do it. Elections have consequences, and Memphis Democrats will be suffering the consequences of this one for a long time.