In a recent column, Mary Anna Towler lamented low voter turnout in our recent congressional primary ("Conservatives' Takeover Is Complete. Who Cares?")
It's tempting to blame voter apathy, which is surely part of the problem. But there are other forces at work. When I was reporting on elections, I thought everyone watched and read my stories. I assumed everyone watched the debates I moderated. When I ran for office, I learned that's not true.
I learned voters don't come to you; you have to go to them. Not everyone lives and breathes politics. People are busy with work and families. We cannot expect everyone to comb through candidate websites and sit through hour-long candidate forums. If people are not exposed to your message, you're dead on arrival.
If high voter turnout is the goal, the primary system is set up to fail.
You may be surprised to learn that when candidates have limited resources, they typically focus on voters with strong voting histories, so low turnout perpetuates. The majority of eligible voters in a primary never get a call, a visit, or a piece of mail.
Take a look at this math. In my recent campaign for the Democratic nomination for Congress, we identified 35,000 high-probability voters – a universe that was manageable, given our resources, predicted turnout, and short length of the campaign. We called, canvassed, and mailed only those voters. We didn't have paid staff and had money for only one mail piece. We identified about 7,000 people who committed to voting for me. We got them to the polls, but we knew that number was short.
The primary winner was surely operating in a much larger voter pool, as he had an enormous war chest. He sent multiple pieces of mail and used paid canvassers. His message dominated. It should not be surprising that he was able to identify far more of his supporters going into the election.
You cannot cross your fingers and hope that large numbers of people who have had limited or no contact with your campaign will come out to vote for you.
How do we engage more voters? Money will always flow to power, but we can do more to make sure the voices of all voters and candidates are heard. We need campaign finance reform, including a public financing option. We should follow the lead of states that send voter guides with information on candidates and referendums. Shortening the waiting period to change parties could also increase primary turnout.
There is some good news. A majority of voters in this congressional primary opted for non-traditional candidates, proving that big money can be defeated. We're seeing similar energy in races across the country. Robin Wilt, Adam McFadden, and I spent far less per vote than Morelle. I would love to have seen what would have happened in a longer race. But make no mistake – the odds are always against beating the machine.
There's no such thing as a level playing field in politics. We should strive, however, to make our democracy as fair as possible.
Barnhart, a former television journalist, was a candidate for Congress in the June Democratic Primary.
America at the crossroads
Our democracy and society are falling apart, piece by piece, and our lives and prospects are in great jeopardy. The assets, institutions, and laws—the essence of what, over two centuries, brought our country to its valued place on the world stage – are being willfully destroyed.
Soon enough, we will be facing further environmental changes, which will bring inestimable, irreparable havoc. The threat of species annihilation – including our own – by mishap or ego-driven, mindless action, has never been as great.
Over the last two years, the nation has become more divided about such matters than we have ever been. How do we dig ourselves out of this world-destroying hole? As John Dickinson's "The Liberty Song" says, "By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall." We have to wake up, take responsibility for our part in allowing the shameful and criminal abuse of power that is burying our ethics and values, and then take action to stop it.
On November 6, vote for those who seem most honorable in their living, those best able to treat others as they would want to be treated.
Vote as if your life depended on it. It does.