Opinion » Editorial

The Turnout Conundrum


It would appear that 75,000 or so Memphis voters decided to take part in the quadrennial Memphis municipal election that concluded last Thursday. Every incumbent, from Mayor A C Wharton down through the rest of the relatively short ballot,

won. That result speaks either to the popularity of those who have been serving us in elective city positions or to an almost absolute apathy, a "don't-give-a-damn" attitude on the part of the voters. The fact is, it's hard to tell.

The aforementioned 75,000 voters (the exact number won't be known until the results are certified by the Shelby County Election Commission) amount to something less than 20 percent of the eligible voter base — 366,963 in Memphis. Perhaps we should exult, since some advance predictions had been that the voter turnout might not even make it past 9 percent to the double-digit mark. But the fact remains that this year's election turnout was at or near a historic low for a regular city election. And we're not sure why that was.

Coverage? The news media seemed to touch all, or most of, the bases. One-sided races? That's a moot point, inasmuch as the majority of races were contested, some of them on what were thought (erroneously, as it turned out) to be relatively even terms. Unappealing candidates? Well, almost certainly that was part of it, but there were a sufficient number of both winners and losers who manifestly had credentials that were up to snuff.

An irate citizen who called the Flyer to vent his complaints about the low turnout offered another theory — that the media (by this reasoning, only partly exonerated in the preceding paragraph) are failing the public in one signal aspect: They do not provide their readers/viewers with an essential bit of feedback that used to be routine — access to precinct-by-precinct, race-by-race post-election tallies. Yes, that's an ex-post-facto theory, but the idea is that voter interest in elections is cumulative — that if citizens have the opportunity, on a regular, dependable basis, to locate the results of their elections in a context that includes both the macro-world (the city, in this case) and the micro-world (their own neighborhoods and precincts), their involvement with the democratic process builds, election by election.

In other words, this year's turnout fizzle may have been the result of insufficient voter feedback over the course of many preceding elections.

Unprovable but intriguing, we have to admit. Now, admittedly, the diligent and cybernetically able among us have the option at some point of ferreting out such precise election totals — the undisclosed information and then some — via website searches. But for most people that remains a hassle, and a delay of several days is usually involved. Once before, when we asked about this issue, we were told by election commission officials that an older election technology, no longer in use locally, made for easier and quicker transfer to the columns of the daily newspaper and that localized totals from the machinery currently in use now have to be laboriously excavated from raw totals before making sense to readers.

That would seem to be one more reason why the plan of converting to paper-trail voting, enabled by the Tennessee General Assembly of 2008 but killed off by the one of 2011, needs to be revived.

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