About those 858,000 registered voters who didn’t get to the polls on Nov. 4: Secretary of State Kris Kobach recently had the opportunity to once again tout the effects of his secure voting project while noting that the 50.8 percent voting turnout was above his originally projected flat 50 percent. In passing, he took a dig at those concerned about the possible effects of his proof-of-citizenship voting security system as a tool for voter suppression.
Perhaps he’s right, and there is certainly no doubt that he believes the naysayers are wrong, wrong, wrong.
Even if the total vote was both numerically greater and proportionately larger than 2010, a handful of significant problems remain. They raise a likelihood that tough voting-registration requirements, closed partisan primaries, provisional balloting, and outside money and negative/attack advertising had combined to dissuade nearly 50 percent of registered voters (about 56 percent of what demographers term “voter eligible adults”) from participating in this year’s general election.
What’s going on here? Twenty years ago, after the Republicans thumped the Democrats, putting Newt Gingrich in the speaker’s chair in the U.S. House of Representatives, President Clinton made several poignant public declarations to the effect that government was still relevant, necessary and really quite important.
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Two recessions; NAFTA; two terrorist attacks on the American homeland; more than a trillion dollars spent and thousands of American military lives lost or maimed in the Mideast; hurricanes, floods and wildfires affecting all levels of American society; Obamacare; Goldman Sachs and the mortgage bubble; Wichita’s loss of Boeing; five years of drought and the looming exhaustion of the Ogallala Aquifer – and most of the adult population of Kansas couldn’t give two hoots about the candidates and their positions last Nov. 4?
It is important to recall that this was to be the Kansas electorate’s declaration regarding gridlock in Washington, D.C., ideological polarization, the wisdom of deep tax cuts to stimulate private-sector growth, and the adequacy of school finance from primary to postsecondary. Voices in the public square spared no effort to point out the state’s perilous financial condition. Meanwhile, big money flowed in to warn the voters that the challengers were not to be trusted and that noise they were hearing under the bed was the Obama-Biden-Pelosi-Reid terror come to raise their taxes and ruin their health.
In the hoorah and hubbub of the 2014 election, we may have missed something really important: A substantial majority of Kansas adults simply don’t care enough about the products on offer to even bother to participate.
Fewer than 25 percent of Kansas adults affirmatively endorsed either Gov. Sam Brownback or Sen. Pat Roberts to retain their offices. Fewer still were persuaded that there was any point or prospect to altering the gridlock that paralyzes Washington, or that putting Democrat Paul Davis in Cedar Crest was going to replenish classroom spending. In fact, the circumstantial evidence suggests that there wasn’t a lot of gratitude for the reduced income taxes, concern about the gaping hole in the state’s general fund, or enthusiasm for the impending explosion of new jobs and opportunities arising from the fabulous tax break those 190,000 practitioners of small-bore capitalism received right after Brownback started his first term.
Maybe the conservatives are correct. Kansans, and perhaps the country in general, don’t believe that government does anything valuable enough to warrant paying any attention, or taking the time to make a choice concerning who is going to pay attention for them.
As my barber said the other day, “There’s nothing here that people want to pay to see, and nothing here to draw a lot of new people and jobs, but I sure don’t mind having to pay less tax.”
Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.