The poet Carl Sandburg once wrote, "Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come." If he were alive today, he might write, "Sometime they’ll have an election and nobody will vote."
That would be only somewhat of an exaggeration after May 22, when less than 22 percent of Arkansas’ registered voters went to the polls in the Republican and Democratic primaries.
How few of us voted? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 3 million people live in Arkansas. In May, 335,885 voted, which is about 11 percent of the population.
Only half of us – about 1.54 million – are even registered. Granted, children under 18 and most convicted felons can’t register to vote in Arkansas. But half of us aren’t kids or felons.
Tuesday it was time to do it again with Democratic Party runoffs for two congressional races – eastern Arkansas’ 1st District and southern Arkansas’ 4th District.
In the 1st District, the candidates were state Rep. Clark Hall of Marvell and Prosecutor Scott Ellington of Jonesboro. The winner will face the Republican incumbent, Rep. Rick Crawford. In the 4th District, the candidates were state Sen. Gene Jeffress of Louann and attorney Q. Byrum Hurst of Hot Springs. Republican Tom Cotton awaits the nominee.
The winners in November each will represent more than 700,000 Arkansans in Congress. All registered voters in those districts except for those who voted in the Republican primary are eligible to cast ballots.
But because turnout was so low, the candidates have not been trying to reach a majority of their potential constituents. Instead, they were scrounging up what supporters they could find to go to the polls. With no statewide races and not much happening locally, it was coming down to a head count. I’ll be surprised if more than 20,000 voted Tuesday.
Turnout will rebound and be above 50 percent in November, which is part of a developing pattern where Arkansans are highly engaged in the general election for president and somewhat engaged in elections for governor, Congress and certain local offices. Otherwise, many races attract little attention, partly because there are so dang many of them.
Case in point: Fayetteville school board member Steve Percival, who served almost a decade as school board president, last year was re-elected by two votes, 115-113. There are more than 8,000 registered voters in his zone. So whether or not the right candidate won, only 2.7 percent of registered voters even thought it worth 15 minutes to help decide. That’s half the time it takes to watch an "Everybody Loves Raymond" rerun.
The problem with this lack of interest should be obvious. Any nut, crook or incompetent would have been elected to the Fayetteville School Board had he or she gotten to the polls 116 friends, relatives, like-minded supporters or people who thought they had something to gain.
There are other reasons why these low turnouts are bad. One is that the small percentage of Americans who do vote tend to be partisan people who elect partisan candidates. That’s one reason Congress is now split between Democrats and Republicans who won’t or can’t cooperate with the other side.
Low turnouts also make it easier for the system to be manipulated. It’s not a coincidence that so many local sales tax hikes, some of them quite worthy, are being decided in special elections instead of in November. When the turnout is 10 percent, the supporters only have to find a small percentage of motivated yes voters, regardless of what the majority wants.
The problem is not that everybody isn’t voting every time. The problem is that many elections are no longer about determining majority will. Instead, they are about cobbling together a minority, sometimes a small one. That means the system can be manipulated.
To prevent that from happening, we don’t need 90 percent turnout, but we must do better than 2.7 percent.
Steve Brawner is a Bryant journalist whose blog, Independent Arkansas, is linked at arkansasnews.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.