Another Election Day that most North Carolinians will sit out

By: - May 17, 2022 6:00 am
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(Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images).

Today is primary Election Day in North Carolina. Across our state, voters will make scores of important decisions about the future of our democracy.

In many places, Democrats and Republicans will select the two finalists in a host of key contests – from the U.S. Senate to the state legislature to the state courts. In many others, where one party or the other dominates, today’s vote will effectively decide the outcome of the election.

Especially in the midst of such a tumultuous historical period, it’s a day of tremendous significance.

Unfortunately, here’s another fact about this year’s primary (and primaries generally): the overwhelming majority of North Carolinians will remain on the sidelines. Based on past performance, it’s almost a sure thing that four out of every five voters – and maybe even six out of seven – will not participate.

North Carolina has conducted eight primary elections in non-presidential years since 1990 and the average turnout has been just under 15.6%. The high-water mark was 21.21% in 2002 when the primary was delayed until September. The low point was 11.92% in 2006.

Turnout in presidential year primaries is better, but still scandalously low. It’s averaged just over 31% since 1988.

And while reports indicate there could be a bump in turnout in 2022, this remains a remarkable and deeply problematic situation.

Consider the story of Congressman Ted Budd.

In 2016, Budd, then a political newcomer and unknown – won a special Republican congressional primary that took place in June (the election was delayed due to redistricting battles). There were 17 candidates in the race and Budd emerged victorious with 6,340 votes – 20% of the roughly 30,000 votes cast. Overall statewide turnout was a tiny 7.73%

Because the district in which he was running was designed to be a safe GOP seat, however, Budd’s win effectively guaranteed that he would prevail in November, which he did with 56% of the vote. Since that time, Budd has been easily re-elected twice – a fact that he has converted into becoming the odds-on favorite to win today’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate in an election in which he has refused to participate in debates with his fellow GOP competitors.

And Budd is far from the only North Carolina politician to benefit from such a scenario. Our state’s political history is dotted with important politicians of both major parties whose initial rise was in a low-turnout primary. Many elections for state legislative seats that represent hundreds of thousands of constituents will be decided today in elections that include only a couple of thousand ballots.

The point here is not to cast aspersions on Budd or other politicians who seize the day and take advantage of circumstances with which they are presented; the point is to highlight the truck-sized flaw in a system that allows for so few voters to enjoy such outsized power.

Simply put, it’s tragic that one of the largest states in the “world’s greatest democracy” provides for such momentous decisions to be made by such a minuscule minority of its citizenry.

Whatever the source of the massive voter disengagement – a) archaic rules rigged to make voting harder, b) understandable disillusionment and/or embarrassingly widespread sloth and ignorance among voters, or c) all of the above – it’s an embarrassing situation.

Part of the solution lies in something at which Americans have never done a very good job in this realm: trying. The nation only embraced universal adult suffrage less than 60 years ago and even today, erecting roadblocks to voting – especially for people of color and those who are low income is something of a national policy pastime.

With just a little effort – through tools like automatic voter registration, widespread distribution of mail-in ballots, making Election Days state holidays, pre-registering high schoolers, and scheduling primaries closer to November – the state could easily drive turnout up substantially.

As authors E.J. Dionne, Jr. and Miles Rapoport document and explain persuasively, however, in their recently released book, “100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting,” there is another tactic that allows many other nations do a vastly better job – at least in general elections: mandatory voter participation.

In Australia, where voting has been treated as a civic duty for more than century – like paying taxes or jury duty – rather than as an option left to the whim of voter interest or distraction, participation in the 2019 general election was 91.9%. Belgium has enjoyed similar numbers.

Dionne and Rapoport readily acknowledge that such a scheme would be controversial in the U.S. While it would almost certainly be constitutional, mandatory voter participation would – even with a “none of the above” box to check on ballots and tiny, easily waivable parking-ticket-like fines for failure to participate – run afoul of many Americans’ “don’t tread on me” cussedness.

On the other hand, they note, it would also go a long way toward ending the debate over voter participation and voter suppression and, perhaps best of all, help shift the ethic in our elections from one in which the guiding objective of so many campaigns is to turn out their own voters, while discouraging their opponents’. It’s an idea that at least deserves serious discussion. Click here to listen to Dionne explain the book in a recent public radio interview.

The bottom line: The 2022 North Carolina primary election is sure to result in the de facto election of a number of important state and federal officials based upon a voter turnout more akin to what one would expect in an election for a small town’s city council.

It’s hard to believe that’s the best we can do.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.