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UMass Boston professor Thomas Ferguson says voters are sick of politics as usual and the special interests who have captured elections

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Republicans are set to take over Congress in 2015, but while many people are talking about future policy, what’s not really being talked about are the lessons to be learned about this past election, not only how many–how do people vote, but how many people voted at all. Our guest today says that voter turnout is at a record low in many states, and we’ll try to unpack exactly why.

Joining us from Boston is our guest, Tom Ferguson. Tom is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and he’s a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, as well as a contributing editor at AlterNet.

Thanks for joining us, Tom.


DESVARIEUX: So, Tom, just quickly, give us some examples of where voter turnout really fell this election season.

FERGUSON: Well, okay. It’s extremely low in places like New York, where it’s back to levels of the 1790s. That’s when two-fifths of the population was debarred by property suffrage requirements. It’s back to the level of the 1820s in New Jersey. Delaware elections in the 1790s were sometimes higher than Delaware’s number. And in the West, you’ve seen a bunch of states–Utah, Nevada, and California, they all had the lowest voter turnout since they entered the union, which is kind of ridiculous.

You know, more broadly, the big picture here, it’s true that one wants to compare, typically, congressional elections with congressional elections, but it’s a perfectly meaningful question, when you’ve got 200 years of experience, to sort of align the presidential election preceding a congressional election and talk about voter turnout dropoff from that, I mean, understanding that in the modern era, since the 1820s or so, you’d expect it to be lower.

Well, this is the second-largest dropoff from the preceding presidential election in American history. That’s the thing that caught my eye. And my co-author, you know, the very distinguished American political scientist Walter Dean Burnham, who’s undoubtedly the best student of American elections probably maybe there ever lived, certainly the best living one.

DESVARIEUX: Tom, did you guys get a chance to unpack why exactly we’re seeing such low voter turnout?

FERGUSON: Well, here one has to sort of put pieces together, because you’re not going to be able–the exit polls won’t catch the nonvoters, right? But when you start looking at which slivers of the electorate did what or did not do things, it’s pretty obvious.

What you see–in particular the point we make is: at one level, this looks like a sort of typical election from any time since the New Deal period, meaning that the lower-income voters, if they vote at all, support the Democrats, and by very large majority, I would add. You know, you can forget all the stuff about Reagan Democrats and things like that. That’s just generally–there’s a number of political scientists who’ve looked at that question, Larry Bartels and others, Andrew Gelman. They all sort of find that result. The lower-income groups back the Democrats. Then that propensity to vote Republican rises sharply with each level of income, with a hiccup at the various top–a little hiccup at the very top of the income scale, where you will find some significant percentages of Democrats that don’t quite follow that straight-line story.

And so the first thing to be said, I think, is how come so few lower-income voters turned out. I think there the answer’s pretty clear. They’ve had a very difficult time, and they’ve been living under a Democratic presidents for six years now, since–or almost six, since they took over. And while we hear constantly about how wonderful the economy is doing, in fact the stock market is up, but the unemployment rate’s still pretty high and wages are dead flat. They’re almost pancake flat there. And as of last July, everybody else except the 1 percent’s income was down about one–I’m sorry–it was down about 6 percent from where it was in 2008. People haven’t recovered their income losses there. The labor markets aren’t back to where they were.

And after six years, I think it’s perfectly obvious what’s going on here, which is that people are just saying–this being a family program, I won’t–I’ll control myself here. They’re saying, who needs this? And they’re sort of nonvoting, if you like, for a new America. That, I think, is the essence of the story.

DESVARIEUX: But, Tom, I want to also get you on this higher voter turnout in some states, because you mentioned lower voter turnout, but some states like highly contested elections, like in North Carolina and Arkansas, there were actually higher voter turnout. Does this just simply have to do with voters feeling that their vote would count in these type of elections? What’s behind this rise?

FERGUSON: Well, there are some old papers that suggests that if people think the elections are going to be close, you’ll get a modest rise in turnout. I remember one by Ben Page [spl?] and a coauthor, for example.

But, no, I think in general what you saw there–as we say, Dean and I looked closely at this. But, now, we can’t–I have to say, we can’t be absolutely sure for a little bit more about whether we broke a record for the most costly off-year election year in history or not, ’cause these numbers, you have to meld together not only federal election commission data but the IRS data, where some of the independent expenditures go, the so-called 527s. So you can’t say for sure this is a record. You know you’re very close to a record if you’re not at a record. And it is perfectly obvious that–and there was–some interim data from earlier reports filed before the elections suggest that these races that were heavily contested, as you suggested, which boil down to, typically, one of the highly contested Senate races, like in Louisiana, for example, or North Carolina (your example), yes, that brings in an influx of cash, and that–you know, I’d look there. There are also some gubernatorial elections–Florida’s an obvious case–that people were spending a lot of money on.

And, now, the turnout rises. It’s about eight states or so, though I should–I’m obliged to caution that rather the voting–the story is–it’s not as incomplete as the money story is, but there’ll still be votes straggling in for two state secretaries of state, who normally compile these things, for some more weeks, at least, and maybe some months before you get a final count, but it looks like about eight states had higher–had slight increases in turnout. One state, Louisiana, had about five point increase. That’s a lot. Even I have to admit that impresses me. But they spent a fortune in Louisiana. There’s absolutely no question about that. So, I mean, this looks to me like if you throw–if you money-bomb the electorate, you can probably–and tell them it’s important, which it was, certainly, then you can get turnout up a bit. Otherwise, mostly what happens–it was, frankly, like a runaway elevator in a fair number of states.

DESVARIEUX: Tom, can you see people sort of using what you just said as sort of an argument for decisions like Citizens United and McCutchen, that you can put all this money into these elections and run all these ads, and that’s going to actually get people to get passionate about these issues and knowledgeable about these issues and actually turn out to vote? What do you make of that argument?

FERGUSON: Well, I’d say it’s extremely costly way to get turnout per vote. I mean, you threw–I don’t carry the number in my head, but, like, the turnout rises.

Let me repeat my point so–they were very modest, sometimes less than a point that they qualified as a rise. That’s the question you asked me. And if you throw–you know, I’m going to make it up–$20 million into it, which probably they–maybe they–probably some of the Senate races hit that, you know, a far better–you might get–a far better way to do it is to have parties that will actually give people some alternatives that they feel like voting for instead of a two-party phalanx that’s, frankly, Tweedledum versus Tweedledee.

I mean, the point Dean and I make in the second half of our piece (which is, by the way, up on Alternet right now) is that basically what–you’ve been running these sort of big money-driven elections for quite some time, and it’s policy disappointment that’s driving down the voter turnout. The far better story would be have some parties show up that actually wants to do something for the population instead of the 1 percent. That’s my answer to your question.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Let’s turn the corner and really quickly talk about solutions. Now, what do we do about it? If this, if, like you were saying, this about just the 1 percent’s interest, both parties just representing it, how do you get money out of politics, then?

FERGUSON: Well, I like public financing. When you asked me this question on Real News–I think Paul Jay asked me the very first time I was interviewed some years back–public financing is your panacea, and you only need one panacea. And that’s the nice thing about panaceas.

Your fundamental problem here is very simple. The sort of classical views of everybody sort of just showing up in green wood or in front of the Church in Lexington, Massachusetts, or something to vote on the common is a nice story, but in fact it’s pretty costly to run campaigns and reach people. We know this. So you have a very simple problem: either we all pay a little, or they, meaning the 1 percent, pay just about everything. And the statistics that Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen and I put together, you know, in our paper in the International Journal of Political Economy, for example, where we actually correctly sum the real level of contributions–and both parties are heavily dependent on money from the 1 percent. I can’t help it if The New York Times’ Sunday magazine tells you a couple of weeks ago that something else–they’re just plain wrong. And everybody knows this number. It’s been out for quite some time. And you’ve got to get–basically, we pay a little or the 1 percent own the system. There’s just no alternatives here.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. What about shorter-term goals? I mean, some might say the public financing is something more long-term. Are there things that people could be doing now to make voting more convenient?

FERGUSON: Oh, for sure. Yeah. If–I mean, even one study I saw even of this election showed that despite all the stuff we were–Dean and I were talking about, and given the facts of turnout decline nationwide, it’s the lowest nationwide turnout since 1942. That was a year when lots of the electorate was running around in some other country waging total war. States that had same-day registration had higher voting turnout.

I would also–and it’s a pretty obvious thing: stop all this nonsense about photo IDs. That’s plainly intended, as my UMass Boston colleague Erin O’Brien and a colleague showed in a very nice paper in perspectives on politics, that’s very clearly linked to electorates with relatively high percentages of African Americans, and it’s just plainly intended to disenfranchise people. I mean, you’ve got to–I mean, that nonsense has to stop.

And mail–voting by mail works, and it’s also, as far as I can tell, close to fraud-free, despite some claims to the contrary. And one of the efforts that some Republican secretaries of state or other Republican officials made in this [incompr.] was to try to restrain, you know, how–when you could vote by mail and how much you could do it. You can do that, for example. I mean, one of the more telling quotations of our time was this remark that Chris Christie made before the election, pointing out–he gave some speech somewhere where he said something like this: he said, you’ve got elect a lot of Republican governors so the right people vote in 2016. You know, that just tells you where we’re at here.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Alright. Tom Ferguson, joining us from Boston, always a pleasure having you on.

FERGUSON: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Thomas Ferguson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and a Senior Fellow of the Roosevelt Institute. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and taught formerly at MIT and the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Golden Rule (University of Chicago Press, 1995) and Right Turn (Hill & Wang, 1986). Most of his research focuses on how economics and politics affect institutions and vice versa. His articles have appeared in many scholarly journals, including the Quarterly Journal of Economics, International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, and the Journal of Economic History. He is a long time Contributing Editor to The Nation and a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of the Historical Society and the International Journal of Political Economy.