The Big Story in Yesterday’s Election Wasn’t GOP Victories-It was Low Voter Turn Out?


DaveyD-leather-225Everyone is talking about yesterday’s elections and how the gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey are key indicators that the Republican Party is back and on the attack.  I’m also hearing a lot of talk about the ‘impressive’ finish New York’s mayoral candidate Bill Thompson did up against the massive money (100 million dollars) spent by current Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Thompson came within 4% of winning after it was predicted that Bloomberg would ether him by as much 10-15%.

Because President Obama was backing Thompson and had his top aids along with himself stomping hard for NJ Governor Jon Corzine against Chris Christie, many are looking at those losses  as a sign that support for President Obama is weakening.

We’re hearing a lot of talk about how the economy was a key issue and not enough has been done, hence people voted to oust the Dems. We’re also hearing pundits talk about  how independent voters  need to be courted better because they appeared to have gone for the Republicans.

While all these things are factors we can ponder over and endlessly debate, what I’m not hearing are conversations around what I think is this election season’s most glaring story-Low Voter turnout. From here in Houston where they estimate a record low, 20% came out  to New York where less than 30 % turned out, and everywhere in between the story was the same. The question on my mind is where were all the young voters who came out in record numbers that put Obama into the White House? More importantly where was the outstanding community organizing that became the hallmark of the 08  election? Where was all the new technology and other slick tools of political engagement being put to use?

I ask these questions, not to simply find fault with President Obama and relentlessly criticize him, but what took place in 08 was touted to be a new beginning. It was touted as being something that would sustain itself and that the folks who came out in 08 were part of a new majority that would be a formidable force for years to come.  What made the 08 campaigns so exciting and fascinating was the independent nature of it. Many of the campaign organizers relished at how they had the freedom to really put their skill sets to the test and do some groundbreaking things to engage voters. This was important because what was noted over and over, was what was taking place was bigger than Obama. In fact President Obama said it himself, that the people organizing was bigger than him.. So where were those people? What happened that those stellar ground teams were not in place to hold it down in jersey, Virginia and in New York.  Was 08 really about a charismatic personality or was it about being part of the political process? Was it about uninspiring candidates who policies and politics were rejected by the people? To me that’s the big story?


NY mayoral candidate Bill Thompson

I can understand how people were excited around Bill Thompson coming so close in the NY mayor’s race, but obviously they weren’t that excited to come out and vote.  Forget about Michael Bloomberg and his millions for a minute. We already know that he wasn’t real popular at least this time around. He basically was out there buying votes.  There was a lot of anger out there toward Bloomberg because of the way he went about flipping the law to get term limits extended. That anger was coupled with widespread dissatisfaction with everything from an increase in police brutality ala Sean Bell to lack of affordable housing etc. People in NY were ready for change…So the question is was Bill Thompson that change? Was he inspiring to people?   Was it really a money thing or did people see or not see the relevancy in his campaign?

Former Vice Presidential green party candidate Rosa Clemente chimed in on a Facebook discussion last night and noted;

” less than 1.2 million people voted out of an electorate of over 5 million, the problem is no one voted, people are disgusted and disengaged at this point, the youth turnout was almost nonexistent, people see that voting does nothing and changes nothing at this point”

If young voters feel disengaged and we can discern this from the lack of turnout all over the country then we have some major problems coming down the pipe. We also have some important soul searching questions to answer.  On one hand, we may have to deal with a betrayal of sorts. During 08, there were many who were skeptical about elections being worth their while. There were many who timidly set aside their deep seeded doubts and allowed themselves to believe in ‘Hope and Change’.  Many young voters looked at the fiasco of the 2000 election and concluded that their votes didn’t count and all this was one big scam.  The 08 campaign help ease those doubts, but it was extremely important that people stay political engaged. One could not take these voters for granted. They could not be seen  just a ‘key demographic to be marketed to.. It was  important to remember that for many, promises that were made or implied would be taken seriously. Hence if they were no longer being engaged and they watched and saw promises no longer kept, many would feel betrayed and not bother to jump into the arena.

We know that was the case in places like Houston where more than a million people who were eligible to vote were un-registered.  When we went around prior to the 08 election, we saw that way too many people had been convinced that voting was not only a waste of time, but it could be misleading if one allowed themselves to get caught up in the hype.  We saw and heard similar sentiments expressed by young voters in places like Los Angeles.  It took a lot of hard work to get people on board and in the end the democrats benefitted.

With that in mind, everyone from Bill Thompson to Jon Corzine and anyone else running for office with left leaning politics had a responsibility to ask themselves how was their campaign engaging all those voters who help put their party in office?  In what ways were they continuing the process?  In a place like NY where almost half the voting population is within 18-40 age range the fact that so little came out is shameful.  Not just for Bill Thompson but for the Democratic Party that he belongs to..  This is important.  Thompson was not an independent guy who came out of no where nor is the Democratic Party without money and resources. He was a skilled politician who was comptroller for the one of the largest cities in the world. His election would be center stage. Where was the investment and does the lack of indicate what we should expect in the future? And yes, the same critique could be applied to Michael Bloomberg as well who actually had the nerve to stand on stage and give a victory speech with a sign behind him that said ‘Progress. What sort of progress did  his 100 million dollars do to inspire young and first and second time voters?

When you see this pattern repeat itself all over the country one has to ask, f this was intentional? Prior to 08, many of the young voters I encountered expressed that they felt like the people running these big parties didn’t really belive in them and weren’t all that welcoming. Obama changed that with his campaign, so people came out in droves, but did the rest of the party ever get the memo? Do many of these folks running for office see young voters as viable or do they have consultants in their ear saying don’t bother they are too risky and inconsistent?

jelanicobbred-225“There are many people who would be happy to not see young people and for that matter progressives further involved with electoral politics”, said  Jelani Cobb, former Obama delegate and current History department chairman for Spelman College.  He noted that in many local races where major party machinery can decide an election , there are many who don’t want to change the way they do business.

“You didn’t see a lot of courting of young people or progressive ” Cobb stated when contrasting 08 election to yesterday’s contest.  “In a day that had beautiful weather we had 24% voter turnout, this was far less than previous elections”.

He noted that in Atlanta less than 100 thousand people (24%) showed up to an election that got nationwide coverage because a white woman  was mounting a strong campaign to be mayor. It would be the first time in 4 decades that a white person became Mayor. What Cobb found even more interesting was the fact that even  though there were attempts to overstate the race an issue and there was a call to ‘save Black mayoralship’ of Atlanta,there was low turnout in districts that were heavily populated with African Americans.

Cobb concluded by noting the lack of money that was raised by the major candidates in yesterdays election. He pointed out that current Mayor Shirley Franklin had raised more money than all three in the last election.

YouthvoteWhen we went to one of the Houston mayoral debate that was billed as one where issues and concerns of the grassroots would be addressed.  Afterwards we spoke with a number of people including local activists, Tarsha Jackson and  Busi Peters-Maujhan who noted that there was a lot lacking both in the answers given at the debate as well as the how the candidates were campaigning. Jackson noted that she didn’t see a lot of activity in many of the precincts where she did work and at the time it concerned her. She felt like the mayoral candidates were giving lip service and people might not come out.  Her predictions proved to be correct.

Peters-Maujhan noted that these candidates were not engaging many of the people who had brushes with the law. Noting that Harris county which is the third largest in the country had an extremely high rate of people who have gone to jail, she stated that it was important that community not only be engaged, but also informed that they are eligible to vote if they were ‘off paper’ (no longer on probation or parole). She expressed one of the things we found during the 08 campaign that there was widespread belief that one could not vote if they behind in child support payments, had parking tickets or had been arrested.  Peters Maujhan wanted more politicians to be aggressive in courting those voters.

firsttimevotersWith all this in mind,  one has to ask what should community activists, organizers, elders and concerned people do to keep folks in their respective communities politically engaged especially if it appears that important sections of the population are being overlooked?  Do we run for office? Do we  have plans of action to keep folks excited and involved in electoral politics?   What has become apparent its going to take more than a few ‘Get Out To Vote” slogans uttered on the radio, MTV or BET  around election time. I am starting to hear more and more conversations of setting up leadership training classes that explain the ins and outs of civic engagement. I am  also hearing more and more people talk about trying to push to have civic classes in schools.

I think such ideas are great, I would personally like to see popular media outlets offer more discussions about politics all year round. I was disappointed to see that as soon as Obama took office urban outlets all over rthe country stopped having daily conversations about elections. many went back to meaningless chatter and gossip.

Maybe things will change in 2010, where the stakes will be even higher. All the congressional seats will be up for grabs. Many of the senatorial seats will also be up. Whoever wins in 210 will have some serious say so on how redistricting will work. That will have apolitical impact for the next 10 years. Until then all of us who have a concern about yesterdays’ election results need to ask ourselves that hard honest question. Where were the voters who stood to benefit by not having them come out?

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  1. not only young voters but voters in general where were they?

  2. Next time create a “beef” between the political candidates and the turnout among young voters may improve. I’ve heard more conversations regarding the Jay Z and Beanie Sigel beef than the political races. What we focus on between the elections is more important than the elections.

  3. They’re called cult members for a reason. It’s all about storytelling and projecting one’s hope onto the great one. Gubernatorial and mayoral elections are too much like non-fiction.

  4. a few things come to mind about this article:
    1) comparing off-year local election turn-out to one of the most contested and well-funded and well-run and inspiring presidential races in history doesn’t make sense. of course there was a huge drop off.

    2) “Bill Thompson to Jon Corzine and anyone else running for office with left leaning politics ” Wha? No one in their right mind would call these folks left-leaning. and no one expected them to run inspirational, engaging and youth-focused campaigns like obama did. not surpising their turn-out was much lower.

    3) hard to say low-turn out was due to folks being frustrated with obama when not candidate’s offered such start rhetoric of change. maybe the VA gov lost because he denied he was an obama democrat, shoot, maybe the dem in NY23 won, for the 1st time since before the civil war, because he was such a different person than the crazy right wing independent backed by palin, who forced the not-quite-so-righting republican out of the race.

    4) felon voting laws vary state by state, and there is confusion and misinformation in each state. of course almost everyone who is in or who has been in jail can vote–you rarely get sent their for felonies, and in most cases it’s only felonies that can trigger not being able to vote for some time. it’s important to use clearer language if we’re trying to better inform folks about this. the sentencing project, the aclu and the brennan center will have good info on this.

    we’re wrong if we are asking why the candidates didn’t court us, the real question is what are WE doing to keep folks engaged and provide them strategic opportunities to do something and see an impact. that ain’t corzine, thompson or obama’s responsibility, it’s ours. i appreciate your comment about ‘urban’ radio stations dropping their short-lived and obama-focused political coverage after the 2008 election.

    • What stood out about the Obama campaign was two things..
      First, a whole lot of activists in particular those who organize youth joined his campaign and talked about their ability to put their theories to practice unimpeded. They got to use new technology, they got to see how traditional elections were run and most importantly they vowed to use their time working for Obama to make the people engaged a force to be wreckoned with. I heard and saw alot of this with my own eyes on 08 as someone who travelled from state to state covering the campaign.

      The biggest complaint that activist brought to the table was there was too much emphasis on elections and not enough on preparing people for them. And so they were charged with keeping the embers glowing all year long. 9 months into Obama’s presidency, we’ve seen unprecedented attacks. many of them have been vicious… They been over the top, they had racial overtones and in many ways should’ve been a wake up call for anyone with half a political brain that all the stops were being pulled out, not just to sttop Obama, but any of the things he stood for and the agenda’s attached to it..
      The attacks on van jones and Yoshi underscored this..

      We also know that the activists who linked up with Obama throughout the election stressed the importance of local contests.. It was a mantra first geared up by Howard Dean and echoed throughout the Obama campaign.. It was re-empahsized when many of us went to the White House back in may and conversations emerged about ways the vanguard of these first and young voters would engage their constituents..the 2009 election was a show and prove moment..

      Now I only focused on Urban radio dropping the ball.. but many other balls were dropped including the ones held by us in the activist arena.. I focused my attention on the democratic party machine because for the most part they absorbed many of the youth activists… The question was aand is did they stifle those activist or did those activist abandon ship and get caught up this new political arena?

      On another level.. Bill Thompson, Corizine and Deeds aren’t young politicians.. So in theory they should’ve had full access to all the weaponary the Dems had to offer…Why wasn’t thast weaponary used. Now I know in Va that deeds was a total ass who refused help from Obama’s people and tried to go dolo.. But Thompson and Corizine mmmmm? especially Thompson.. How does Obama and the Dems allow the world to see a miserable 222% of the voters come out while a fellow Dem loses? That makes no sense..

      It makes no sense until I reflect upon private convos I’ve had in work I’m doing where Dem leaders have said point blank that certain demographics of people are not worth the time or money to go after for elections.. Its been reaffirmed with what Jelani Cobb has seen.. and experienced..

      This can’t be explained away as business as usual or off year voting trend.. I can understand a drop off, but a record drop off.. in NY, Houston Atlanta?? Naw thats not by mistake..This demographic was used to get Obama in.. they were the wild card and now that he’s in.. they can be abandoned and are being abandoned.. It goes beyond the elections.. The Nov 3rd contest was just a clear manifestation..