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Fall is upon us. The time of year is truly magical for any number of reasons: the joys of jacket weather, the taste of apple fritters, the gradual turning of the leaves and the productivity of harvest time are common hallmarks of the season. Personally, every other year, the season means a little something extra to me.
It’s election season, baby.
Specifically, this year, it’s midterm election season. And in a new president’s first term, no less. This twice-in-an-average-decade occurrence is truly the most wonderful time of the year for political analysis.
My excitement about politics in general is balanced against a depressing reality: most people will not vote on Tuesday, November 8. Decades of data suggest that about 40% of eligible voters will likely cast a ballot. The highest midterm turnout in the last century came in 2018, at an eyebrow-raising 49.3% of eligible voters, according to the United States Elections Project.
Despite that high water mark, it remains true that over half of the Americans who could have voted did not.
Many non-voters lament the modern political climate, where polarization is the word of the day and gridlock is the result, rather than progress. These Americans can’t really get on board with either party enough to vote for their candidates.
The thing is, for midterm elections specifically, the failing to vote makes the problem even worse. Because of their low turnout, midterms are more likely to propel ideologically extreme candidates to victory.
I base this assertion on three things we already know about American politics.
Issue 1: The people who turn out to vote in any election are the people who are more politically engaged.
A poll by NPR and the Medill School of Journalism in 2020 revealed the obvious: 79% of voters in that year’s election said they “closely followed” the campaigns, compared to just 38% of non-voters. The same polling found that non-voting Americans were less civically engaged in general, with lower odds of volunteering in their communities, attending local events, writing letters to elected officials or contacting news media than voters.
This trend is exaggerated in midterms, as a number of those data points carry over to “drop-off voters,” those who vote in presidential election years but not midterms. While this demographic is more likely to have logged volunteer hours, their civic engagement doesn’t extend to politics: less than half said they discussed current events with friends and family in a 2016 Pew Research poll.
It makes sense, when you think about it. The midterms have less spotlight than campaigns shared with the presidential race. As a result, the people who vote will be the ones paying more attention to politics, because they’re less likely to miss the memo and more likely to have an opinion already formed.
Issue 2: politically engaged people are more likely to be strong partisans.
This is also fairly intuitive. A big reason people get involved with politics is because they strongly agree (or disagree) with one side or the other.
If you really want numerical evidence, check out any poll of ideological identities for political activists. It will be U-shaped.
In 2014, Pew Research found that people who vote in every election are more likely to score as “strong conservatives” or “strong liberals” on ideology-testing questionnaires. The same trend holds out for people who get involved with campaigns, make political donations, or attempt to contact their elected officials.
Issue 3: strong partisans elect strong partisans.
Again, this is a straightforward idea. People elect candidates they agree with. CNN/Edison Research exit polls in 2018 showed 91% of self-identified liberals voting for Democrats in the House and 83% of conservatives voting for Republicans. They voted that way because those are the parties that corresponded with their ideologies.
From Point A to Point C, the midterm conundrum goes like this: less spotlighted elections only draw voters who are more engaged, who are therefore more ideological, who therefore elect more ideological candidates, who sprint to political extremes to keep winning with their base.
This issue is not inevitable. There are some structural reforms that could address the issue.
One of them was plugged by State Auditor Rob Sand when he visited Washington a few weeks ago: open primaries.
The idea is that removing the party identity restriction from primary elections would help depolarize them, because a whole population could influence the outcomes that can’t in the status quo. One obvious example is third party and independent voters who think registering as a Democrat or Republican for a day feels like lying. Another is people who don’t strongly identify with either party or just don’t want their political views listed publicly.
I, for one, am in the last group. I am not a registered member of a political party because I’m a journalist, and my first duty is to “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” Partisan identity would certainly fall into at least one of those two camps.
I already don’t participate in local elections because I avoid voting in races I cover in order to keep an open mind while reporting. Still, it would be nice to have a say in federal primaries, where I’m not obligated to cover the entire campaign trail.
A third group — unmentioned by Sand but easily the largest group of Iowans and Americans — could also have a depolarizing effect under an open primary system: partisan voters who expect to lose the general election.
Most of America’s square miles fall into districts with predictable general election outcomes. Up to 15 of the 50 states are swing states, depending on your definition. Within those swing states, only a handful of districts are truly “swing” districts. Most counties have voted the same way in every election for the last several decades, and will continue to do so for the next several decades.
Within those districts, voting for the party that hasn’t won in 50 or more years is as much of a throw away vote as a third party ballot. This reality makes the favored party’s primary the functional decider of who will take the elected position, even if the official vote doesn’t come until months later.
While it’s possible to switch parties, cast a ballot, and switch it back, most people have an aversion to doing so. In Sand’s words, “ … to most independents, that feels like lying.” In the words of WHO radio host and ideologically conservative-leaning Simon Conway, “it’s perfectly legal, but it’s morally bankrupt.”
This was a lesson learned by the campaign of Jaron Rosien last spring, who Conway was grilling when he uttered that quote.
Rosien had not explicitly catered to Democrats, but said in an interview (with me) that, “If you’re an independent but you want to see me on the Republican ticket … (or) a Democrat, and you want to vote for me, you can do so in both the Republican primary and in the general.”
The strategy did not work out for the current mayor of Washington, campaigning as a “different type of Republican” that was explicitly anti-gridlock. He lost the primary by over 30% to Heather Hora, a candidate identified by her platform as a “conservative's conservative” and this publication as a “Republican’s Republican.”
In November, Washington County voters will choose between Hora’s unconditionally conservative views and the platform of Eileen Beran, a Democrat looking to pull the district’s liberals and moderates into a coalition on her ballot. It’s worth noting that Beran was not selected by a primary election, but by a nominating committee of party representatives.
It’s certainly possible for Beran to win, but with most of the state house district in consistently Republican Washington County, she’s hardly the favorite. Even without polls available, Washington County has not sided with a Democratic state legislator, governor, U.S. congressperson, or presidential candidate in recent memory.
If Hora wins in November, it will mean Democratic voters had no say in the electoral process. Even if Democrats in the district had a viable candidate in the primaries, it’s impossible to calculate how many in the party stayed home, expecting their primary pick not to matter after November.
Based on ideology alone, those voters would have likely preferred Rosien to Hora. This is not to say that Hora is a radical, per se, but that Rosien is objectively closer to the views of the “median voter.” And in a general election, he’d probably have about the same odds as Hora against Beran, or any other Democrat.
It’s an example played out around the country. Candidates appeal to their base in primary season, then coast to victory in non-competitive general elections where they don’t have to pivot back to the center. The result is the Marjorie Taylor Greenes and AOCs of the world, who most Americans would consider politically radical, but whose constituents show support by sizable margins.
Major changes to the electoral system would certainly help the issue, but don’t hold your breath. The system inherently benefits those with the power to change it, because they’re the ones who used it to win in the first place, a reality that makes change unlikely.
This takes us back to the original issue. What can Americans do about the political extremism that brings them such despair?
They can vote.
What’s more, they can vote in the approaching midterm general election, where conventionally lower turnout means better odds for ideologically extreme candidates. There are very few reforms that can substantially improve voter turnout, that’s a change only non-voters can make, by choosing to cast a ballot by Nov. 8.
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