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Nonvoters Are Not All Imbeciles

May 23rd, 2006 by dk

The Register Guard, June 4, 2006

Last week’s primary election brought out the lowest percentage of voters in a generation, nearly broke the state’s all-time record for a collective shrug. Nonvoters outnumbered voters by 2-to-1. If you include Oregonians eligible to vote but not registered, the drubbing voters took from nonvoters was closer to 3-to-1. The pell mell panic that followed was an embarrassment.

Former secretary of state Phil Keisling trotted out the tired trope that voting is the first duty of citizenship. Eugene news anchor Rick Dancer devoted a half-hour to the disconnect between voters and the system. Register-Guard columnist Bob Welch wrote passionately in a Sunday column about correcting that “pathetic turnout.” Eugene cartoonist Jesse Springer characterized the nonvoter as a dozing ne’er-do-well, tossing his “none of the above” ballot from the recliner into the trash. The editorial board for The [Eugene] Register-Guard weighed in on the “fundamental unfairness” of the double majority requirement. Earnest men all — white, upper-middle-class, comfortable men — but did any of them talk to any nonvoters? There’s no evidence to suggest they did.

It’s no wonder. Even though a resounding majority of Oregonians didn’t vote this month, few would likely admit to the misdeed. Nonvoters are the new smokers, vilified and shamed in public without remorse, less than human, freeloaders on the bandwagon of democracy.

But what if we’re not all imbeciles? What if choosing not to vote in this primary election best articulated the message we wanted sent? What if we knew what we were doing? Or, in this case, not doing?

If there’s one thing independent-minded Oregonians hate more than being told what to do, it’s being dared not to do something — like vote.


• Since the U.S. House of Representatives capped its own population at 435 in 1911 with Public Law 62-5, the voting population of each U.S. representative’s district has increased 600%, making each potential vote one-sixth as valuable as it was a century ago. John Kerry received 20 times as many votes from Oregonians in 2004 as Woodrow Wilson needed in 1912 to win the state’s Electoral College votes.

• Gerrymandering has become so effective at predicting likely outcomes, the number of Congressional seats likely to flip from one party to the other has reached historically low numbers.

• The percentage of registered voters not aligned with one of the two major parties in Oregon has more than doubled in the past 20 years. It’s increased tenfold since 1970. But just as importantly, the amount of “party discipline” exercised by legislative leadership has all but eliminated rogue votes by Democrats or Republicans. The Democrats in the state Senate recently voted to follow the Republicans and close their caucus meetings, so citizens will no longer be able to observe how legislative voting strategies are negotiated.

Each small change removes my vote further from the deliberations and the decisions that we (still) claim as the bedrock of our democratic republic. Somebody is not paying attention, but I wouldn’t be so sure it’s always the leprous nonvoter.


When exactly is a electoral decision made? It’s announced on a Tuesday night, but very few races come down to the wire in the way that excites the few who cover “the horse race.” Polling has reached such a level of sophistication for high-profile races, that all but a handful are accurately predicted days or weeks earlier.

Since the Supreme Court has equated money with speech, a careful eye on the fundraising prowess of candidates can be used to handicap races, even when no public polling numbers are available. Sophisticated donors use their own polling data to calibrate their generosity to specific candidates. Nobody wants to throw good money after bad.

The odds are set for candidates even earlier than that. Private polling is done often months before the race officially begins and more than a year before we see headlines. The best professionals back the candidate they believe can win, increasing the likelihood that they will.

Simply put, voters are not consulted until nearly every uncertainty has been resolved. The single variable that money and ads and expertise and polling can’t reliably predict is whether voters will actually vote. Keeping both options open until the last minute is exercising the most power that still remains with the voter.

Legislators have been daring us not to vote for years. They have relied on the tut-tutting of opinion leaders to keep citizens voting, even as they enact laws to dilute the power of those votes. The double majority requirement rewards the savvy nonvoter who wants to resist higher taxes during off-year elections. Is it cynical to play by the rules?

Less noticed is a cynicism that that can be traced back to the state legislature. Last summer, both parties colluded to punish primary voters, taking from them the right to sign a nominating petition for an independent candidate. This was the door swinging shut on the butt of Ben Westlund as he exited the Republican party. But it wasn’t just Republicans swinging the door; Democrats went along with it.

The reasoning offered was this: By using a partisan ballot and voting in the primary election, you’ve had your chance to choose our future governor. Allowing you to be among the 18,000-plus signatures required for an independent to get his or her name on the fall ballot would be giving you “a second bite of the apple.”

As if Oregon has ever seen an apple shortage in the fall.

By this logic, the vote totals garnered by each of the major-party candidates should be forwarded to the fall tally and any who used partisan primary ballots should be disallowed another “bite of the apple” in November.

I chose to forego my right to vote in the hopes that somebody outside the library or post office or grocery store will ask me to sign a nominating petition for an independent candidate for governor. I don’t know that I’ll vote for Ben Westlund, but I’d like to see him on the ballot.

I’d also like to send a message to lawmakers who believe they can rely on my upbringing and an occasional public scolding to make me fall in line and vote, even as they do all manner of deeds, public and private, to make that vote less meaningful.

It wasn’t easy for me to toss my ballot this spring. There were a couple of nonpartisan races where I would have liked to have helped. I could have changed my party affiliation, but I thought my vote without a major party would have less power than my non-vote within a major party.

I only wish that power also included a voice. So how about it, guys? Let’s stop assuming all nonvoting is an expression of apathy. Let’s stop treating all nonvoters like deadbeats. Let’s learn what they meant to say by saying nothing. Let’s ask them.

All those in favor?

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chris O’Neill Jun 4, 2006 at 10:10 am

    Well, Don, your commentary in the RG was very interesting. It makes you wonder if the two major parties have become liabilities more than assets. I am writing to let you know how I didn’t vote. I have voted in every single local, state and national election since 1972–haven’t missed one. I didn’t vote in May 2006 because I am registered in a party and chose to preserve my option to sign the Westlund petition as an Independent candidate for Governor. Despite my disappointment at the lack of political leadership to solve our biggest civic challenges, it was not apathy but critical thinking that led to my not voting. By the way, I saved the ballot as a momento–unsealed in its mailer from the Elections Division. Best, Chris

  • 2 ardeel Oct 31, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    Interesting indeed, subsitute the word “vote” for “choice” and in this case , by refusing to choose- I have still made a choice. I have been given all the typical responces such as “if you dont vote you dont have the right to …..” ect. I disagree and Im going out to smoke now !