Don’t Just Blame Voters for Low Turnout

It’s a beautiful day in Massachusetts — not a cloud in the sky and a lovely fall breeze – perfect weather for a walk to your local polling location. But today’s primary election is expected to have historically low voter turnout. States across the country are struggling with low voter turnout and unenthusiastic voters this season; voter turnout nationwide is down 18% compared to 2010.  

Ask anyone on the street if they plan to vote this year and you’ll get a similar answer – “they all represent more of the same” or “they can’t get anything done so it doesn’t matter anyway.” Voter apathy has turned into voter disdain. A broken Congress, a virtual one-party system in Massachusetts, a struggling economy and turmoil abroad have led voters to tune out the political ads and skip the polling places this primary season.

Some states have approached the problem through longer polling hours or shorter lines. But the problem with voter apathy isn’t the polling location – it’s the politicians themselves. So what can our politicians do to pique the interest of voters?

Listen to Them: To communicate effectively, you have to listen first. What questions are voters asking you at community events or posting about on Facebook? What sparks the strongest reaction in the polling data and what issues are in the news? If you want the voters to listen to you, you must first listen to them – and then respond in a way that makes the electorate feel engaged in the process. Otherwise, you’re talking to an empty room. And empty rooms don’t win elections.

Get Off the Stump: Politicians give more speeches in one campaign season than the average person does in his or her lifetime. Stump speeches allow you to share your positions in a consistent way across the community and are valuable when delivered in a compelling manner in the appropriate context. However, the stump speech can only get you so far. The old adage of kissing babies and shaking hands is just as true today as it was 50 years ago. Shake hands at community events, respond to tweets, return phone calls – one-on-one conversations are even more valuable than speeches.

Take a Stand: All too often in a primary election, the candidates agree or say very little about specific issues, leaving voters confused and, eventually, tuned out. While this tactic often benefits an incumbent, it’s not a good strategy for an open election or a candidate with little name recognition – and it discourages voter engagement. Taking a stand can be risky, but without a differentiator from your opponent, there is nothing to make you stand out – and nothing to drive voters to the polls on Election Day.

Democracy is a two-way street. The electorate has a civic duty to vote – but the candidates also have a responsibility to give the people a reason to do so.

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