Thursday, September 16, 2010

On Montgomery County’s Plummeting Turnout

Tuesday’s turnout rate was so low that it may signal a threat to the state of Montgomery County’s democracy. Here’s why.

Consider these turnout results in MoCo primaries since 1978.

Even though the 2010 results currently exclude absentees and provisionals, it is obvious that this year’s turnout will be BY FAR the lowest in at least thirty years.

The rate is even worse when comparing the number of actual voters to the number of people who are eligible vote. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Montgomery County’s population aged 18 or over totaled 722,033 in 2008. Not counting absentees or provisionals, that means 14.7% – or about one person in seven of the voting age population – has decided the makeup of our county government and state delegation.

Why has this happened?

1. Democratic disillusionment
MoCo is an overwhelmingly Democratic county. Some spies have suggested that Democratic euphoria at Barack Obama’s election last year has been replaced by Democratic apathy given the state of the economy. That may be true, but 1994 was a tough year for Democrats too, and MoCo’s primary turnout rate was about 50% higher then than it will be this year.

2. Negative campaigning
There is no question that this was the most negative primary in MoCo history. One theory holds that all the negative mail disgusted voters and kept them away from the polls. We don’t believe that has accounted for all the turnout drop, but we will assess turnout rates for different districts when we see them to test that hypothesis.

3. No top-ticket races
There were no premier Governor, U.S. Senate, Congress or County Executive races this year, and that was definitely a factor in keeping turnout low. But that was also the case in 1998, and turnout that year will wind up being about five points higher than this year.

4. No media coverage
The mainstream media unquestionably did an abysmal job in covering our primaries this year – especially the Washington Post. That may have depressed turnout if many of our voters did not even know that there were elections. But the magnitude of this factor is impossible to measure.

5. Demographics
As of 2008, 401,047 of MoCo’s 722,033 citizens aged 18 or older were white non-Hispanics. That works out to a voting-age population percentage of 55.5% white non-Hispanic. For the total population, the white non-Hispanic percentage was 53.4%.

Of the county’s forty-two state and county-level elected officials, thirty-two (76.2%) will be white non-Hispanic. That percentage is about twenty points higher than the voting-age population. And consider the respective win rates of white and non-white candidates in this year’s contested county and state elections.

In all contested elections, the winning percentage for white candidates (45.6%) was fourteen points higher than for non-white candidates (31.6%). Removing the District 16 House race, which was full of losing white candidates, from the statistics produces a 53.3%-27.8%, or 25.6-point, spread. On the positive side, every non-white incumbent who ran for reelection (County Executive Ike Leggett, Council Members Nancy Navarro and Valerie Ervin and Delegates Susan Lee, Kumar Barve, Ana Sol Gutierrez and Al Carr) won.

We do not intend to denigrate any candidates, whatever their race or ethnicity, for having the campaign savvy and work ethic to run and win. But when the county is about to turn “majority-minority” and the win percentages between white and non-white candidates are this different, some reflection may be in order. It seems that the county’s political life has not yet integrated many of its newest residents.

Montgomery County has long had an elite that has guided its politics. Many years ago, Gazette columnist Blair Lee coined the term “the Glorious Five Thousand” to describe the county’s political class of office holders, staffers, lobbyists, developers, business people, advocates and activists who collectively determine the direction of the county. Most localities all across the world have such a class. But in MoCo, the Glorious Five Thousand seem to be increasingly disconnected from the rest of the local population. That may have dire consequences for the county’s democracy in years to come.