MD Voter Turnout: We Had a Party and No One Showed Up

“Decisions are made by those who show up.” A great man once said that, or it could have been Jed Bartlett from the West Wing. It’s true even if a fictional president made the declaration. I should start over.

Congratulations! Maryland’s primary election results are official, and they say we all survived. Since you’re reading this post, you’ve most likely concluded turnout was either amazing or poor.  Spoiler alert: it wasn’t amazing. My pundit hero and pick for the last word on all things MD politics, Josh Kurtz, wrote in his CenterMaryland.org column that, “the biggest loser of all [on Election Day] was democracy.”

So, turnout was low, got it. For the sake of argument, lets say something must be done to get the super majority of Marylanders who didn’t vote to show up at the polls on Election Day, what should we do? How can we fix it? Warning, another spoiler alert: I have absolutely no idea. What I think I can do is shed some light on the issue and explain why: It’s Obamacare’s fault.

Ok, it’s obviously not Obamacare’s fault. However, the health reform law did provide us with an opportunity to get a glimpse at the psyche of Americans. The Affordable Care Act allowed people to purchase health care through insurance exchanges. As expected, “Blue” states embraced the exchanges and, for the most part, “Red” states did not. Volunteers, or navigators, from community health groups and left leaning organizations worked tirelessly to enroll as many people as they could find. The result was that in states with a significant outreach program, enrollment was up. Not a huge shock until Perry Bacon asks and answers his own question: “Don’t people just get insurance because they need it? Not really.” People needed healthcare, but without following up with outreach, they didn’t get it. Voting is the same way, the likelihood of you voting depends on if you’re contacted, and in Maryland the outreach simply wasn’t enough.

Right now you may be thinking I’m crazy; you received enough campaign mail to wallpaper your den. If you’re thinking this then likely you’re what campaigns call a “One.” Sadly you’re not The One from The Matrix so don’t try to dodge bullets just yet. You’re just a voter who is as sure of a bet to vote as there is. So stay with me and you’ll get the answer to the question you didn’t ask, and I’ll even teach you how to dodge the flurry of campaign mail like Neo dodged the bullets from the agents.

I doubt you’d be shocked to be told campaigns are expensive. For example, to run for MD state delegate, a job that will pay the next class of delegates slightly more of $50,000 a year, it can cost up to $150,000 or more to compete. There are campaigns that can spend much less, but it’s not an easy feat.  Campaign staffers know, as does your mail carrier, that mail is one of the easiest and most effective ways to reach voters with their message. The problem is it’s expensive, really expensive. While knocking on doors is relatively cheap, it takes a long time. A good canvasser can cover about 20 doors an hour, but that’s made tougher when your voters live in apartment buildings or aren’t home when you come calling. So every campaign will stick to the smaller group of voters, the Ones, who they know will vote. Makes sense right? You talk to the people you know will show up. One downside is it is annoying to have 5-10 campaigns constantly killing a small forest to ask you for your vote.

So these Ones, the likeliest of all likely voters is a very small, but elite group. In one legislative district with about 120,000 eligible voters, about 65,000 are registered Democrats and only about 6,000 are what you can consider a die-hard voter. While campaigns will pay some attention to the less likely voter, it’s nothing compared to the attention die-hards voters receive. This small group gets pounded with mail, calls, canvassers and so on, and get frustrated. Every year there are some voters who don’t vote because of this, and since there’s little to no outreach to unlikely voters, the number of Ones drops every year and isn’t replenished.

So now it’s time to blame. To be honest, I have no idea who to blame. I’ve worked on campaigns and this is the strategy I’ve used and will likely continue to use. I don’t fault any campaign that just targets those who are certain to show up. I also praise any campaign that tries to expand the playing field in a substantial way by engaging the less likely voters. While I doubt I’ll work on many of those campaigns, I still respect them. Since I’ve already written a lot, I’m going to blame the Republicans so I can get to the point I was trying to make in all this incoherent babble. Stop talking about how bad the problem is, fix it. Propose solutions, even ridiculous ones like increasing teaching civic engagement in high school. Anything is better than our current situation. If you’re angry at the amount of campaign mail you got, be sure to teach the campaigns a lesson. Not by not voting, but by working to get the less likely voters to show up at the polls. The more we expand the voting universe, the more difficult we make the lives of candidates and campaign staff. But in the end, it’ll be for the better.

Thank you

P.s. I did promise you I’d teach you how to try to dodge campaign mail. Vote early. Campaigns can track when you get absentee ballots and when you return them. They can track when you’ve voted early. If you vote as early as you can, you’ve done your civic duty and campaigns will take you off their mail lists. You’ll also likely stop getting volunteers knocking on your door and robocalls. Though I can’t help you stop the contribution solicitations, I hear campaigns are expensive.

 About the author:

Abe Saffer Profile PicAbe Saffer is a Director of State Advocacy for the American Diabetes Association. He has been active in politics and advocacy in Montgomery County, having served on the board of the Montgomery County Young Democrats, managed multiple local campaigns, and worked for Delegate Jeff Waldstreicher (D-18). In 2012 he received his Masters in Political Management with a concentration in political communication and campaigns from the Georges Washington University. He lives in 20910 (Silver Spring) with his wife, Tonya. In his free time, he runs the 2038 Congressional campaign for his son Carson.

Follow him on Twitter: @abesaffer

Abe Saffer
I am a Congressional lobbyist for the American Occupational Therapy Association, focusing on issues dealing with education for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I've been active in politics and advocacy in Montgomery County, having served on the board of the Montgomery County Young Democrats, managed multiple local campaigns, and worked for Delegate Jeff Waldstreicher (D-18). In 2012 I received my Masters in Political Management with a concentration in political communication and campaigns from the Georges Washington University. I live in 20910 (Silver Spring) with my wife, Tonya. In my free time, I run the 2038 Congressional campaign for my son, Carson.

4 COMMENTS
  • Mike
    Reply

    I voted early and still got robocalls up to the day of the election, and campaign mail that arrived even after the election. It’s no guarantee, in other words.

  • Abe Saffer
    Reply

    I’d be curious to know how early you voted and if there were others in your household who were “1s.”

  • Mike
    Reply

    Both of us are 1s and both voted toward the end of the early voting period.

  • Abe Saffer
    Reply

    “Mike – I voted early and still got robocalls up to the day of the election, and campaign mail that arrived even after the election. It’s no guarantee, in other words.”

    Ahh the key is voting as early as you can. At some point campaigns have to finalize mail lists so you most likely were after that happened. Next time vote absentee, or even the very first day of early voting.

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