Get out and vote
Don’t let this year’s scorched-earth presidential campaigns keep your voice from being heard
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.