Get out and vote

Don’t let this year’s scorched-earth pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns keep your voice from be­ing heard

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Roger E. Hart­ley Roger E. Hart­ley is dean of the Col­lege of Pub­lic Af­fairs at the Univer­sity of Baltimore. His email is rhart­ley@ubalt.edu.

The pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 2016 is among the wildest, least civil af­fairs we have seen in mod­ern Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Di­rect per­sonal at­tacks by the cam­paigns and their sup­port­ers seem to have am­pli­fied in each of the three de­bates, cul­mi­nat­ing in each side wear­ing the op­po­si­tion’s at­tacks as a badge of honor. Imag­ine if Mr. Rogers saw this be­hav­ior. Think of the great book Dr. Seuss might be in­spired to write: “Oh, How Rot­ten Things Can Be!” In­deed, this process has not been healthy for men, women or chil­dren. But there it is.

This height­ened neg­a­tiv­ity has had many say­ing they are dis­gusted, per­ma­nently turned off of pol­i­tics. There is a lot of talk that vot­ers might stay home. But are we re­ally that eas­ily dis­gusted? Other times in our tur­bu­lent his­tory sug­gest that the Amer­i­can voter can be pretty darned tough — that we even en­joy the rau­cous na­ture of a rough, hard-fought elec­tion. And isn’t this one of the most out-of­con­trol things you’ve seen in a good long while?

Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists gen­er­ally agree that neg­a­tive cam­paign­ing tends to sup­press voter turnout. But like most so­cial science, the real an­swer to that ques­tion is: “Well, it de­pends.” Both cam­paigns have re­lied on sharply neg­a­tive ads, at­tack­ing each other on a bat­tle­field that I can’t imag­ine be­ing any more po­lar­ized. But in this cy­cle, the wild card (pun in­tended) is the pas­sion­ate na­ture in which the can­di­dates have ad­dressed each other. There is anger in the air, di­rect per­sonal at­tacks and, of course, in­cred­i­bly hy­per­bolic rhetoric and cam­paign events that level and fun­nel the vit­riol — in Don­ald Trump’s case, not only at his op­po­nent, but at the es­tab­lish­ment wing of his own party. We­have re­ally never been through any­thing quite like this — not in the life­times of the vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans, at least.

Each side has pretty ef­fec­tively used the other’s at­tacks as a way to in­flame their base, get them steamed enough to turn out in high num­bers at the polls. The hope is to con­vince them to crawl over bro­ken glass to vote.

Then there is the im­pact of scan­dal. Vot­ers par­tic­i­pate in early vot­ing at the Po­tomac Com­mu­nity Recre­ation Cen­ter on Oct. 28 in Po­tomac, Md. Charges of sex­ual as­sault and a record of ver­bal abuse of many groups of Amer­i­cans, ver­sus an on­slaught of ac­cu­sa­tions about miss­ing emails, the Beng­hazi in­ci­dent and in­sider pol­i­tics. Hil­lary Clin­ton disses Mr. Trump, Mr. Trump disses Ms. Clin­ton. Re­peat. In the end, it is a huge mess of neg­a­tiv­ity that is dif­fi­cult to sort out. Who is ad­van­taged or dis­ad­van­taged in terms of voter turnout?

Some pun­dits sug­gest that this his­toric train­wreck of an elec­tion might flip the script on turnout: The typ­i­cally high pres­i­den­tial vote count might look more like the turnout of a run-of-the-mill midterm. And those vot­ers who of­ten skip the midterm? It’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict what they’ll do in 2018. Maybe show up in droves? It’s clear that an an­gry ide­o­log­i­cal base, on ei­ther side, will get you one out­come: more anger. Mix that with two un­pop­u­lar can­di­dates and you have a recipe for a wild scram­ble to the polls — and away from them.

Still, Amer­i­can vot­ers are quite fa­mil­iar with barn-burn­ing po­lit­i­cal af­fairs. We have been through scan­dals, wars, do­mes­tic in­sur­rec­tion and some of the ugli­est of the ugly ex­pres­sions of pol­i­tics. There was a time when “rig­ging the elec­tion” re­ally meant just that: party ma­chines, ward bosses and hired crooks buy­ing votes, threat­en­ing peo­ple to vote or not to vote, and even craft­ing com­pletely nutty schemes to trick the elec­torate to do one thing or an­other. Re­ally, we’ve seen it all.

To­day, the kind of rig­ging we need to worry about is not whether a ran­dom dead per­son casts eight bal­lots in coun­ties around the state. It’s that po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives are gam­ing the sys­tem; for ex­am­ple, a party sets up more polling sta­tions in lo­ca­tions where they know “their” vot­ers will be and fewer in places where they know their op­po­nent’s vot­ers cast bal­lots. This gam­ing also takes the form of the in­creased com­plex­ity of a reg­is­tra­tion form. Or com­pli­cated, bu­reau­cratic ID laws. Or ger­ry­man­der­ing. Or a ban on early vot­ing or short­ened early-vot­ing pe­ri­ods. Again, we’ve seen it all. The bag of tricks is frankly bor­ing. No poll tax, lit­er­acy test or robo­call can fool us — not for long, any­way.

Amer­i­cans fought hard for the right to vote. Some­times we lost, some­times we won. But the right re­mains fun­da­men­tal, in­deli­ble, and writ large in our pol­i­tics. That’s why you al­ways see long lines on Elec­tion Day. It’s why folks will sit back, order a pizza and wait. It’s the rea­son why some of us will take a day off from work — to make sure we mark our bal­lot, and, es­sen­tially, earn our spot in this holy fra­cas called democ­racy.

So, what we’re see­ing to­day looks aw­ful — it is aw­ful. But while we po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists are think­ing and wor­ry­ing about it, we know that it is up to all of us to search in­side our­selves and re­mem­ber how tena­cious a peo­ple we re­ally are. Are we go­ing to let a scorched-earth con­test like Trump v. Clin­ton dis­cour­age us from vot­ing? Nah, I don’t think so.

BREN­DAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

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