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Why Turnout in the Presidential Primaries Was Dismally Low

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The final Republican presidential primary election is still over a month away, yet when Rick Santorum suspended his campaign on April 10, the contest was effectively over, with Mitt Romney being the clear winner. And while there was much talk throughout the campaign about the candidates, their strategies and how each was doing in the "horse race," there was little or no talk about how good or how democratic the process was. Considering the level of dissatisfaction with our government and the depth of problems in our society, this is an important topic.

On April 10, 25 states with 40 percent of the U.S. population had not even held their primary election or caucus. There has been much agonizing over the fact that candidates who take an early lead in the primaries and caucuses typically end up winning the nomination before people in many states ever have a chance to vote. This is an obvious problem.

The bigger story, however, lies in the 25 states that did have a say in who the winner would be. In those states the turnout rates were dismal. Few people realize that the winner was determined by 9.8 percent of the people who were eligible to vote in those states, amounting to a mere 5.2 percent of the people who were eligible to vote in the U.S. as a whole.

According to voting statistics gathered by Professor Michael McDonald of George Mason University, by April 10, a total of 12,806,923 ballots had been cast in these elections. With approximately 134,232,880 people eligible to vote in those 25 states, their cumulative turnout rate was 9.8 percent. Since there are approximately 247,210,185 people eligible to vote in the U.S., this amounts to a mere 5.2 percent of all eligible Americans. Primary elections and caucuses are of course different, but the point here is that very few people participated.

Since there was no contest in the Democratic party, those numbers are undoubtedly smaller than they would have been had Barak Obama been challenged. If he had, the percentages might have doubled. But even a 20 percent turnout is dreadfully low.

Nearly all recent primary elections have had a similarly dismal turnout. Turnout for statewide primaries (U.S. Senate and/ or governor) is typically even lower -- usually less than 20 percent and often less than 10 percent -- particularly in mid-term and off-year primaries. Primary elections for local offices often have a turnout of less than 5 percent. This is despite the fact that it is in the primary election that voters have a real choice, with multiple candidates on the ballot to choose from. The people who do turnout tend to be the most strongly partisan, and members of special interest groups.

In previous presidential general elections, about 50-55 percent of eligible voters have typically turned out. Other general elections typically have a lower turnout, but a much higher turnout than primary elections. General elections are a contest between two people, which is hardly a choice at all. And since most people simply vote according to their preferred party, they never make a real choice.

Why is this? Americans universally believe that democracy is the best form of government, and most agree that we should advocate for democracy in other nations around the world. Why aren't we participating in our own democracy? The most fundamental assumption of democracy is that people will participate. How can we consider our government a democracy with so few people participating?

Could the problems with our government, such as partisan polarization, government paralysis, double speaking politicians, the power of special interests and our $15 trillion national debt be related to this?

As you read this, you may feel concerned, but you are unlikely to change your own behavior. After all, what good would it do for you to add just one more vote to these already big numbers? How is your vote going to change anything?

That's the problem with mass democracy. That's why so few people participate. We all have issues we are concerned about, and we would all like to influence how the government addresses those issues, but it is unclear how casting a vote with millions of others will translate into our desired results. Thus, we don't feel motivated to vote. And when each of us is but a tiny part of an enormous country, no one feels any sense of responsibility for it. We all feel like bystanders, disconnected and unable to control the government by merely voting.

Nevertheless, we hold elections and the people who win them run the government, but is there any reason to expect that we will have good government simply because we hold mass elections?

People have made it clear by not voting in primary elections that the expectations our democracy places on them are unrealistic. We may have an ideal of widespread public participation, but what matters is reality. If reality doesn't meet our ideal, our ideal is at fault. Thus, we must either reconsider our ideal and find a different approach to democracy that people are willing to participate in, or accept that our government never will be accountable to the people.

Is there a different approach to democracy that people would be more likely to participate in?

In businesses, CEOs break up the responsibilities of running their business into manageable chunks, and delegate responsibility to a hierarchy of managers, forming an organization. The hierarchy allows everyone in the organization to be held accountable by their boss, and ultimately by the CEO. CEOs are then able to achieve business goals by managing the organization through their hierarchy of managers. Some corporations consist of millions of people, and it is by organizing this way that they are able to be successful.

The people of America are in a similar situation in that we need to manage our government better in order to get it to work in our interest. But since the people are disconnected and disorganized, we are unable to do so.

Could democracy operate successfully as an organization?

This would require us to view democracy in a fundamentally different way. Representatives would need to be arranged in a hierarchy. And just as CEOs are not responsible for managing each individual employee in their organization, citizens would not be responsible for managing (i.e., voting for and holding accountable) all of their representatives. They would instead elect a single representative who is closer to them and delegate all political responsibility to that representative. Citizens would be connected to government via a hierarchy of connected representatives. This would make two-way communication between citizens and their representative, and between representatives at each level of the hierarchy possible, making accountability possible up to the highest levels of the government.

This would require much smaller election districts, small enough that citizens could realistically get to know their representative well enough to make a good voting decision and hold them accountable. These election districts would be communities, citizens would be community members, and the representatives would be community representatives.

Citizens would participate in democracy by participating in their community. They would present issues they are concerned about at community meetings. Issues that gained support within the community would be pursued at the next level of the hierarchy by the community representative. Issues that gained support at each level would rise up the hierarchy, with those making it to the top becoming policy. Citizens, and representatives at each level, would hold the representative they elect accountable for the results they produce on these issues. This is how the public could manage the government.

Political participation would consist of the simplest, most natural activity imaginable -- talking with the people around us about the issues that concern us. People would become engaged in politics because they would be part of a community of neighbors that would be empowered to make a real difference. Democracy would become real.

We have thought through such an approach to democracy and we call it Local Electors -- the name we've given to the community representatives. We believe that since it addresses the root problem with democracy, it has the potential to solve all of the problems in our government, and many in our society. You can learn more at localelectors.org.

The Framers of our Constitution never intended for our democracy to operate the way that it does today. They feared mass democracy and they went to great lengths to avoid it when writing our Constitution. Our system of democracy is the way that it is not because anyone designed it this way, but because of a series of ill-considered, incremental reforms.

It makes no sense to cling to a broken system that was never meant to be. We must be open to innovative solutions. After all, isn't innovation what Americans are best at? This is our opportunity to fix democracy and to make it better. We hope you will join us.

  Obama Romney
Obama Romney
332 206
Obama leading
Obama won
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Romney won
Popular Vote
33 out of 100 seats are up for election. 51 are needed for a majority.
Democrat leading
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Holdover
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Democrats* Republicans
Current Senate 53 47
Seats gained or lost +2 -2
New Total 55 45
* Includes two independent senators expected to caucus with the Democrats: Angus King (Maine) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).
All 435 seats are up for election. 218 are needed for a majority.
Democrat leading
Democrat won
Republican leading
Republican won
Democrats Republicans
Seats won 201 234
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