The voters have decided. Joe Sestak received 54% of the vote, while Arlen Specter received only 46% in the senatorial race in Pennsylvania’s recent Democratic primary. Sounds like a decisive victory, right? Wrong. Let’s look at the real numbers.
There are 4,310,317 registered Democrats in Pennsylvania. 564,169 of them voted for Joe Sestak. 481,351 voted for Arlen Specter. Expressed in percentages, it comes down to a 13% to 11% victory for Sestak. If it was a poll and not a vote, I’m pretty sure Sestak’s two percentage point win would fall within the margin of error and the race would be considered a draw. It gets worse. If Joe Sestak becomes the next senator from Pennsylvania, it will be because 6.6% of Pennsylvania’s registered voters put him on the ballot. Specter couldn’t compete with numbers like that. After all, he only got 5.7% of the vote!
I was on the ballot this time. I won my race by a landslide, thank you very much. Of course, I got 82 votes and was running unopposed. I was running for a seat on Berks County’s Democratic Committee, so I wasn’t expecting too many votes. Here’s the funny part. I was the second highest vote-getter in my precinct. Only Rich Stine got more votes than I did. He got 84. He was also running unopposed…for State House. It’s not really so much funny-ha-ha as funny-are-you-%!*#@&^-kidding-me? I have nothing against Rich. He’s a great guy! In fact, the Kutztown Area Democratic Club endorsed him this year. It’s just mind-blowing to me that my precinct could send anyone into the general election for a seat in the state house with fewer votes than we needed to be elected to Student Council in high school where, incidentally, we had to compete with write-ins like Holden McGroin, Fart, and I Like Weed.
In thinking back to high school, it occurs to me that, as editor of the high school paper, I wrote endlessly about how I couldn’t comprehend my schoolmates’ apathy. More than 35 years later, I’m more flummoxed by apathy than ever. After all, in high school, the students truly didn’t care. I don’t remember kids sitting around cafeteria tables, complaining that our school was doing less than it could to prepare us for college or that school security was taking way too long to get to the bottom of the weekly bomb scares (actually, I wasn’t complaining about that either because they got me out of Health every Tuesday morning). They didn’t even complain that our prom theme sucked. (It really did. Stairway to Heaven. C’mon!) All these years later, I hear nothing but complaints from voters. So why don’t they vote?
Some of the answers may be in the 2000 Census. Non-voting respondents were asked to explain why it is they don’t vote. The results were then tabulated according to sex, age, race, Hispanic origin, and educational attainment. Here are the reasons:
Too busy, conflicting schedule
Not interested, felt vote would not make a difference
Illness or disability (own or family’s)
Did not like candidates or campaign issues
Out of town or away from home
Forgot to vote (or send in absentee ballot)
Inconvenient polling place or hours or lines too long
Bad weather conditions
Other reason, not specified
Refused or don’t know
The top response by far in all categories but two was “too busy, conflicting schedule”. The two exceptions chose “illness or disability (own or family’s)” as their top response. Want to guess which groups those were? If you guessed seniors 65 and above and non-high school graduates, you’re correct. Too busy, conflicting schedule” was second on the latter’s list, receiving 21.5% of the responses. High school graduates selected it 35.4% of the time, whereas 39.3% of those with some college and 37.6% with Bachelor’s degrees or higher degrees ranked it first.
“Not interested, felt vote would not make a difference” was the second most frequent response by most groups. That was true for all age groups but one. For seniors 65 and above, “Forgot to vote (or send in absentee ballot)” ranked second and “not interested” ranked sixth.
“Bad weather conditions” came in a distant last across the board. Not one Non-Hispanic Asian and Pacific Islander chose it.
It’s hard to say if the responses can be trusted and it’s hard to say how different the responses might be today. Nevertheless, the number of responses was so high for the top two reasons that they’re hard to dismiss. In all cases where “too busy…” was first, “not interested” was a clear to somewhat distant second. It would appear, in other words, that people aren’t as apathetic as they are overwhelmed. I can believe that.
I had a friend who regularly called me to have me explain the news to her. She had a crazy life. She had too many jobs and pretty much complete responsibility for housework/cooking/shopping. Her husband worked odd hours and frequently changed jobs because of the job market in his field. Her daughter was in high school and was completely over-extended, trying to build a resume attractive to college admissions and financial aid officers. Her mother was developing serious health problems that caused her to rely more and more on her daughter. My friend felt terrible about not being able to keep up with current affairs. She didn’t need to keep up with them—she was living them. What she didn’t have time to do yet really needed to do was to learn about candidates and make good choices. For my friend, it wasn’t that her schedule on election day was too hectic; it was that she didn’t have time to make informed choices leading up to election day. What was the point of voting if she didn’t know who she was voting for?
Those of us who work in our precincts and volunteer with campaigns need to keep that in mind. Let’s see what we can do to make it easier for the overwhelmed electorate to learn about the candidates. Let’s give them a reason to show up.