Low Turnout in Alabama

This year was an especially acute case of no competition in Alabama.

election-voter-peopleVia AL.com:   Alabama voter turnout only 41 percent, lowest in decades

Only 41 percent of Alabama voters turned out for Tuesday’s general election,the lowest participation in a general election since in at least 28 years.

Turnout is always lower in non-presidential election years but had topped 50 percent every time since 1986.

This is not surprising and, I think, for one main reason:  the utter lack of competitiveness in the election.  Not only did the incumbent Governor, Robert Bentley (R), went into election day with polling showing an almost 2:1 advantage.  Beyond that, they was a general lack of competition up and down the ballot.

For example:  Senator Jeff Sessions (R), was unopposed, as were two members of the House, District 4’s Robert Aderholt (R), and District 7’s Terri Sewell (D).  The remaining 5 seats were won by margins ranging from 2:1 to 3:1.

On my own ballot in Montgomery of 26 offices on the ballot, sixteen had unopposed candidates (i.e., 61.54%).   That’s almost enough to make one want to put “election” in scare quotes.

Low levels of competition of this nature is a problem and certainly calls into question the quality of democracy (and it certainly depresses turnout and, therefore, further degrades the quality of the election).

It is worth further noting that these candidates were chosen in primaries with a turnout of only 21%.

Understand:  I am not bemoaning a particular electoral outcome—but rather the fact that we reached this outcome through processes that are a lot less democratic that we like to pretend is the case.  Indeed, one would expect that whatever outcomes one would have in an election in Alabama that those outcomes would be largely conservative.  However, is it too much to ask that there be some actual competition between conservatives for office?  (Not to mention an electoral system that would actually represent the broader sentiments across the state, as the numbers do indicate that between a third to a quarter of the electorate—and more in some cases—do prefer Democratic candidates).

And, as I noted the other day, this problem is not just in Alabama, since we know that almost all the seats in the House were awarded to Representatives in noncompetitive elections.

This is a real issue if one value democracy.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2014, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. James Joyner says:

    I agree it’s a problem but haven’t the foggiest what to do about it. House seats are uncompetitive at least partly because of gerrymandering but the governor’s race is at large. Certainly, Democrats have won in recent memory by fielding stronger candidates.

  2. Just Me says:

    This problem isn’t new.

    My dad was generally more republican than democratic but he was a registered democrat because in the state I grew up in everything at the state and local level was run by democrats. As often as not for local elections the primary was where the eventual winner was chosen and often there would be no republican nominee.

    This started to shift a bit in the 80’s and 90’s but even now the town I grew up in is mostly run by democrats even though the state overall has shifted over to republicans.

    I do agree that having little competition can suppress the vote-nobody is all that motivated to vote if they believe their vote doesn’t really count for anything.

  3. stonetools says:

    Understand: I am not bemoaning a particular electoral outcome—but rather the fact that we reached this outcome through processes that are a lot less democratic that we like to pretend is the case. Indeed, one would expect that whatever outcomes one would have in an election in Alabama that those outcomes would be largely conservative. However, is it too much to ask that there be some actual competition between conservative for office? (Not to mention an electoral system that would actually represent the broader sentiments across the state, as the numbers do indicate that between a third to a quarter of the electorate—and more in some cases—do prefer Democratic candidates).

    Er, Professor, I don’t want to disillusion you, but you do understand that this didn’t just happen, right? That it’s according to plan.

    The following is a statement from Richard A. Viguerie, Chairman of ConservativeHQ.com, regarding the withdrawal of former Governor Tim Pawlenty from the race for the Republican presidential nomination:

    “Conservative voters in the Iowa Republican straw poll eliminated Tim Pawlenty from the Republican primary field and took the first step to winnow the wheat from the chaff to find the conservative standard bearer for the 2012 presidential election.

    “Pawlenty’s exit demonstrates a dynamic in Republican politics that few in the media grasp: It is no longer enough to appear conservative just to the liberal elites of the media. Conservative voters are demanding a Republican presidential candidate who is conservative and will govern according to conservative principles.

    “To the media, Pawlenty was a conservative because his personal story was one of a man who lives by conservative principles. But his campaign failed to gain traction in Iowa or anywhere else because his record as governor–and candidate–was one of flip-flopping and compromise on fundamental conservative principles.

    “On the other hand, despite their limitations as candidates, Representatives Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul thrived in Iowa because of their unwavering adherence to conservative principles.

    “Inside-the-Beltway pundits and commentators will attribute Pawlenty’s withdrawal to his poor performance in the FOX News debate or the tactical limitations of his campaign, but that analysis is too shallow to tell the whole story.

    “The real reason Pawlenty is out is because Tea Party and grassroots conservative activists are no longer going to allow the liberal media to anoint the conservative candidate. In 2012, they will nominate a candidate who both shares their principles and can be relied upon to uphold them. Governor Pawlenty is merely the first in the field to fail that test.”

    Also, too, just Google ALEC.

  4. @stonetools: Yes, I am familiar with ALEC.

    (Nor am I suggesting that it just “happened” although I think the explanation goes beyond just a given partisan plan).

  5. @James Joyner: The honest answer is a total non-starter: changing the electoral system.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @stonetools: You do recall that Republicans nominated Mitt Romney, right? I’m not sure that he was any more conservative than Tim Pawlenty.

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yeah, even aside from entrenched interests and huge institutional inertia, I just don’t see much sentiment for overhauling the system. At a minimum, I’d like to have Election Day be either a national holiday or held on a weekend and to eliminate off-off-year elections and the like. Virginia is especially egregious, choosing its key state officeholders in odd years, when no Congressional, much less presidential, election is being decided. While easy enough for those of us who are salaried and intensely interested in the process, the whole system seems designed to suppress turnout and ensure that decisions are made by a certain class of people.

  7. @James Joyner: It is possible that some of those modest proposals might get discussed at some point (but I am not even sure we are at the discussion stage). I would support all of them, in fact.

    And yes: there is zero discussion of broader reform. Of course, most people a) think that the system in place actually creates representative outcomes (so why have debate), and b) have no idea that there is any other way to do things (and so a discussion is, by definition, not going to happen).

    We all talk as if the current set of institutions actually provides a democratic outcome (i.e., that it roughly approximates public sentiment) but the actual outcomes don’t reflect this notion anywhere near as well as we tend to think.

  8. stonetools says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: \

    We all talk as if the current set of institutions actually provides a democratic outcome (i.e., that it roughly approximates public sentiment) but the actual outcomes don’t reflect this notion anywhere near as well as we tend to think.

    Why I mention this is that we should recognize that there are groups and persons out there who are dedicated to making sure that these institutions do NOT provide a more democratic outcome. I do appreciate you exposing yet another way these groups game the system. You are certainly right that our instiutions are a lot less democratic than they ostensibly claim to be, and people need to know that.

  9. stonetools says:

    @James Joyner:

    Yeah, there is actually a better quote by Viguerie that says something like conservatives are actually opposed to more people voting, but I couldn’t run it down.

  10. JohnMcC says:

    @James Joyner: What a wonderful thing to read over your signature, sir: “…the whole system seems designed to suppress turnout and ensure that decisions are made by a certain class of people.”

    Be very careful how far you take that thought because it leads leftward into much clearer atmosphere, or did for me.

    And like our fellow reader JustMe, I pretty clearly remember from my childhood in Montgomery that the very well regulated Democratic primary was the only real election and I doubt that Alabama had some flowering of democracy since the 50s that is now being choked off.

    Still the question in the Original Post intrigues me. What seems obvious to us here is that a social or economic interest involving enough possible voters in AL would find a voice. Where are the contending interests that ‘should’ divide AL political constituencies?

    It did occur to me that someone answering that question about this election only could make the following case: That the election was so ‘nationalized’ as an anti-Obama opportunity that local differences were submerged by the necessity to present a strong, united conservative front.

    As I say, looking at the history of Alabama elections, I doubt that strongly. But you asked.

  11. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    You wanna talk non-competitive races? Massachusetts has nine Representatives.

    Six of them ran for re-election unchallenged. As in, “there was a Democratic nominee, and no Republican challengers.” As in, “the Democrats were the only ones on the ballot.”

    THAT is pathetic.

  12. @Jenos Idanian #13: But that rather goes to my point, yes?

    Of course, the difference between your observation and mine is that you are trying to score partisan points. However, I am trying to make a broader point about the overall quality of our democracy.

    Our system does a poor job of generating competitive and representative outcomes. The frustrating part is that there are systems outside the US that do, but we don’t, on balance, have a clue about this fact.

    I wholly concur that we need a system that would represent those Republican voters who live in Mass.

  13. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: But that rather goes to my point, yes?

    Of course, the difference between your observation and mine is that you are trying to score partisan points. However, I am trying to make a broader point about the overall quality of our democracy.

    No, I was trying to reinforce your point with what I thought was an even better example. Please don’t assume that I am automatically antagonistic to you. Republicans are so disenfranchised in Massachusetts that they don’t even bother running for some races.

    However, they just elected a Republican governor, and prior to their outgoing Democratic governor, they had four straight Republican governors. I attribute that to two factors: 1) they realize that they need to put SOME kind of check on the Democrats, and 2) the Democrats keep nominating really, really, really bad candidates for governor.

  14. just me says:

    Massachusetts and Alabama aside-the reality is that in Alabama most of the races had candidates from both parties and voters had a choice even if they were being chosen by large margins.

    In Massachusetts there wasn’t a choice other than the primary.

    Perhaps something more parliamentary style would be better-although I’m willing to bet Massachusetts would have very blue representation in congress (or whatever we would call it) and Alabama would still have a very red one. I don’t think the congress is going to amend the constitution, but it would be interesting if states could opt out of the redistricting model and proportionately award the house seats-of course in small states like mine they would forever have one representative from each party but in states where only one party wins the major races it would make them a bit more purple.

    It might make for an interesting congress.

  15. just me says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    I think it is more the really bad candidates in Massachusetts. I think Martha is all done trying to win major state wide elections.

    But there is some of the token republican at work.

  16. al-Ameda says:

    I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in the late 60s into the early 70s, voters routinely elected Republicans AND Democrats to state offices and to congress. These politicians were primarily moderates of both parties. The affluent suburbs north and south of San Francisco – Marin County, and The Peninsula down to Palo Alto – now vote Democratic by 60-40 and 70-30 margins.

    I think many, many people now choose (to some degree) to live in communities or regions based on being around people of a similar outlook and political view. Of course, getting/having a job comes first, but the rest of it comes into play.

    Good friends of ours moved to Colorado Springs from the Bay Area a few years ago to be near the heart of the Evangelical Christian movement, Focus on The Family. Many well-educated people come to the Bay Area because it is the epicenter of the biotech, medical research, and digital world. There are many other examples of this across the country. Some other friends left the Bay Area because of the high cost of living, and they ended up in somewhat less expensive (but not cheap) areas like Portland, Seattle, Denver, Chicago and even Albuquerque.

  17. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @stonetools:

    “The real reason Pawlenty is out is because Tea Party and grassroots conservative activists are no longer going to allow the liberal media to anoint the conservative candidate. In 2012, they will nominate a candidate who both shares their principles and can be relied upon to uphold them. Governor Pawlenty is merely the first in the field to fail that test.”

    And so they ended up with…Romney?????

    I think Mr Viguerie took to big a pull on the Koolade bottle before he said that, or maybe he is the real identity of Eric Florak.

  18. Dave Schuler says:

    On the ballot I voted on here in Chicago roughly three quarters of the candidates ran unopposed. It’s estimated that 85% of all candidates in Illinois run unopposed in general elections.

  19. dazedandconfused says:

    James,

    An entertaining piece on the Aussie system of “manditory” voting:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/07/AR2007120701610.html

    I think there is a major problem in this country with getting good people to run for office. It’s become a bit too dirty a game, and who wants to have to kiss about $40,000 worth of butt per week to get slimeed in the media? Specific to this particular election, the Dems seemed uniquely un-inspiring to me this time around. They ran from Obama, an that meant they had to run from the policies he supports which got him both elected and re-elected. A fine exhibition of dumb cowardice is the best that can be said for it. They meekly allowed the R’s to steer the subject to their caricatures of “Obama” instead of policies.

    I believe the only Democrat in possession of enough brains and bells to advocate an inspiring message right now is Elizabeth Warren, and it seemed most of the Dems running in “red” states didn’t even have enough of either to ask her to come out for them, which is pathetic on multiple levels. Afraid to advocate your own policies? Don’t be shocked if people don’t bother to show up to vote.

  20. Tony W says:

    I know Alabama has a warm place in James’ heart – but I think we should seriously consider that any state with enough dullards to put an anti-Sharia law initiative on the ballot should be immediately placed under federal protection for their own good.

    Come to think of it, that’s pretty much what we have done with the south – sending California’s tax dollars down there to mop up the mess of Jim Crow remnants.

  21. @Tony W: Taken collectively, I think that this year’s crop of amendments was the silliest I have seen since I moved here in 1998.

  22. @Dave Schuler: More evidence of the problem.