A Crisis of Democracy? Voter Turnout in the Pennsylvania and Kentucky Primary Elections

Is the non-vote a vote of no confidence in the two-party state and duopoly system of government? We are told that yesterday's two most closely watched US Senate primary elections represent a significant defeat for the Democratic-Republican political establishment: Democrat Joe Sestak defeated career politician Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania (54% to 46%), while Republican Rand Paul routed Trey Grayson in Kentucky (59% to 35%). (Via Memeorandum.) Yet, these results are not nearly as impressive as they may seem when one considers them in the context of overall voter turnout numbers, which hovered around 30% in both states. US News and World Report provided the following statistics in the case of Kentucky:
Kentucky Secretary of State spokesman Les Fugate said early turnout appeared to be low, but was expected to be around 30 percent statewide. In 2008, with a presidential primary on the ballot, turnout came in at between 25 and 30 percent. In 2007, with a gubernatorial primary on the ballot, turnout was about 21 percent.
Pennsylvania's Commissioner of Elections sounds almost as if he'd be surprised if a third of all voters cast ballots in the election. From a local CBS News affiliate:
a disproportionately low number of voters will actually cast their ballots on Primary Day 2010 according to Pennsylvania's Commissioner of Elections Chet Harhut. "I think, generally speaking, it will be lower than a Presidential (race)," Harhut said. "I think if we can reach the 30% turnout, it'll be a good day." In 2006, the last time Pennsylvania held an off-year, primary election statewide turnout was 18%.
Let's consider the actual numbers in the Democratic and Republican Senate primary races in Pennsylvania and Kentucky respectively. According to the elections returns page at the PA Department of State, in the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania, Joe Sestak received 564,169 votes (54%) to Arlen Specter's 481,351 (46%). Thus, 1,045, 520 Democrats voted in the US Senate primary. As I noted yesterday, PA's primaries are closed, so only Democrats could vote in this race, and there are 4,310,317 registered Democrats in Pennsylvania (out of 8,443,188 registered voters). Just over 24% of registered Democrats cast ballots in the PA Democratic primary. And, in the end, 13% of registered Democrats voted for Sestak, providing him with a "major upset." Considered as a percentage of total registered voters, these numbers are even more telling: just over 12% of all registered voters cast ballots in this race and Joe Sestak received the support of just 7% of all registered voters!

Now let's turn to Kentucky. According to the state's most recent voter registration statistics reports, the Bluegrass State has 2, 851, 996 registered voters. Of them, 1,618,011 are Democrats, 1,044872 are Republicans and 189,113 are registered "other." The State Board of Elections puts voters turnout in yesterday's primary election at 32.65%, with 931,145 voters casting a ballot. 351,912 voters participated in the US Senate Republican primary: Rand Paul received 206, 812 votes, or just under 59%, soundly defeating Trey Grayson, who received 124,710 votes, or 35.5%. Considered as a percentage of registered Republicans, these numbers look quite different. Just 20% of registered Republicans cast a ballot for Paul, while Grayson garnered the support of only 12% of the same. Interestingly, as a percentage of total registered voters, Paul's support in Kentucky is roughly equivalent to that of Sestak: only 7% of registered voters cast a ballot in favor of Rand Paul in Kentucky!

And this brings us back to my original question: is the non-vote a vote of no confidence in the two-party state and duopoly system of government? Less than a third of all voters participated in the Kentucky and Pennsylvania primary elections. Democratic and Republican US Senate candidates are capable of scoring "major upsets" with the support of just 7% of registered voters. Of course, the apologists of the ruling parties explain such facts away by alternately, and contradictorily, asserting the existence of voter apathy or voter contentment. But is this not a crisis of democracy?


Samuel Wilson said...

No matter how few people voted, it's still a major upset if people expected the other fellow to win at the start of the campaign. What it isn't, as your stats point out, is a popular mandate for anybody.

It's not necessarily a contradiction to assert apathy and contentment at the same time. It's just a failure of vocabulary, since the word the apologists are looking for is "complacency." It's also something for which the Bipolarchy is not entirely to blame. There is no guarantee that more choices will mean more turnout as long as many Americans assume that politics can't or shouldn't accomplish anything. You can read low turnout as a no-confidence vote, and not just in the major parties but possibly in representative government and self-government itself.

d.eris said...

The only thing that was 'upset' then, as you imply, is the quasi-fictitious narratives constructed by the Democrat and Republican party PR apparatus with the help of the corporate media. And 'Complacency' definitely seems a much more appropriate term than 'apathy' or 'contentment.'

It is rather disturbing to consider how obfuscatory the percentages thrown around by the media are with turnout so abysmally low.

Alessandro Machi said...

It sounds like you are using the opposing parties numbers to further dilute the winner's percentage.

isn't it more accurate to say that 7 plus percent of a needed 50.1 percent voted for the victorious candidate?

Still not a huge amount, but that comes in around 15% instead of the plus 7% figure you are using.

d.eris said...

hmmm, I dunno Alessandro. The victorious candidate does not actually always need 50+% of votes cast. I think the victorious candidate usually just needs one more vote than any other candidate in the race to win, so conceivably a candidate could win with 34% of the vote in a three person race, or 21% in a five person race etc, unless there is a stipulation that candidates must win at least 50% of the vote, which is the case in the Dem Senate primary in Arkansas, which is going to a runoff election now, last I heard.

My numbers, on the other hand, are measuring the amount of support for the primary winners as a percentage of total registered voters, and as a percentage of total registered voters within the given party, rather than as a percentage of total votes cast or of votes cast within a specific party's primary race. The way I see it, the latter two measures significantly inflate the level of support for all candidates involved, which is in the interests of the two-party establishment and the corporate media. Seeing the numbers as a percentage of total registered voters demonstrates just how shallow the support for all of these candidates is, imo.

It is highly suspect and problematic that such abysmally and consistently low voter turnout numbers are simply brushed off by the major parties and the media. Sam's final speculation above is a scary possibility that many people would likely rather not confront.

Nancy Hanks said...

Damon, thanks for bringing to light the democracy issue in this primary! If democracy means people voting for leadership, we have a good ways to go. Voter turnout is very important. Keep up the great work.