Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Special Elections and the Paradox of Voter Fatigue

Timothy Sherratt


June 28, 1013

By Timothy Sherratt

“Political chaos seen as cause of voter fatigue,” headlined Frank Phillips’ article in the Boston Globe ahead of Tuesday’s special Senate election to fill John Kerry’s seat. With two special Senate elections in short succession, plus a wide-open mayoral race to succeed the towering figure of Thomas Menino and a governor’s race just around the corner, citizens may now resume their basic democratic responsibilities after a string of lengthy incumbencies.  How can this be a time for fatigue?

Mr. Phillips’ sentiments strike at the core principles of citizen sovereignty. Instead of celebrating the more meaningful choices voters may now get to exercise, he equates voter power with “chaos” and likens the stasis of entrenched incumbency to a desirable “order.”

If this were only a case of yearning for some golden age of Democratic dominance, one might simply let the voters prove Mr. Phillips wrong.  However, the Secretary of State’s office confirms the fatigue as only too real, predicting a record low turnout for the special Senate election.  

As for the candidates, Congressman Ed Markey is a household name to his district of thirty seven years, but is not well known beyond those precincts. With semi-incumbent status and a Democratic profile that invokes the past more than the future, Markey has tried to spice up the race by giving a contemporary facelift to his party’s positions, prioritizing background checks for gun purchases ahead of climate change legislation, women’s rights, and LGBT equality.

An ex-Navy SEAL, Latino, and a successful businessman, Republican Gabriel Gomez is a relative newcomer to politics. He tells an immigrant’s success story with passion and verve but deflects other issues in a ham-fisted fashion. Declaring that he is a “proud, pro-life Catholic,” for example, he immediately qualifies that position by insisting that Roe v Wade is settled law and that such divisive issues should not dominate politics.      

Gomez chastens Democrats for fiscal irresponsibility, but he castigates Republicans for allowing cultural values to pass them by. In Gomez’s estimation, Republicans should embrace immigration reform and cultural evolution and stop hurting their electoral chances. Even with Markey’s better than three-to-one advantage in party registration, Gomez’s biggest frustration lies more in the specter of the House Republicans who make disgruntled Democrats leery of pulling the lever for Gomez.

All of this adds up to an uninspiring campaign, which projects the image of a neophyte Republican facing inevitable defeat at the hands of a seasoned Democratic campaigner in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. But Massachusetts is anything but that. “Unenrolled” (i.e., independent) registrations grew from less than 40% of voters in the 1980s to over 50% in 2008, with those numbers continuing to grow. The same period also witnessed no fewer than four Republican governors and a handful of congressmen winning office, together with Senator Brown’s upset victory in 2010.

At a time of electoral flux like this, citizens of democratic theory should be energized. Why are their real world counterparts enervated instead?

Doubtless the ever-polarized Congress casts a long shadow over all elections and lends an air of futility to politics. A case in point is Speaker Boehner’s recent insistence that immigration reform, pursued with rare bipartisanship in the Senate, will be dead on arrival at the House without a Republican majority. Additionally, the prospects are dim for transforming the present system into a modern multi-party democracy, even as the current state of party registration is ripe for such a change.

As protest movements from Brazil and Turkey to the Occupy Movement attest, politics is alive to fresh organization and citizen sovereignty. To date, however, these initiatives have failed to transition from short-term connections inspired by modern communications technology to the more permanent party structures needed to contest democratic elections year after year. To get there means deciding what you stand for and building the structures needed to sustain a political program and make it attractive to voters. Well-organized political parties remain vital to democratic health.

Oh yes, I nearly forgot. Congressman Markey won the Senate seat by several percentage points. Early estimates of turnout indicate a record low.

- Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”