April 12, 2012 | by Peter Rosenstein
Scandals, low primary turnout in D.C.

Only 15 percent of eligible voters turned out for D.C.’s April 3 primary. There have been low voter turnouts in primaries across the nation and there are repercussions for everyone but especially for those who don’t vote and often find themselves with elected politicians they don’t like. By not voting they should give up their right to complain. Now that doesn’t mean they won’t complain and in D.C. they do so often and loudly to anyone willing to listen.

While there are many reasons for the low turnout, a big one was that this was a stealth primary. The Council moved the election to April for the first time and until the last three weeks there was little discussion about it in most of the media. There also was no presidential primary in the Democratic Party, which makes up the majority of the electorate in the District.

When the media did focus on the election, it appeared as if they all concluded it was only about ethics and all incumbents were somehow guilty of wrong-doing. I tend to agree with one pundit who said that the general population got tired of hearing this because despite all the real or not so real scandals things in D.C. are going really well.

We have a balanced budget and a huge surplus. Like the rest of the country, the unemployment rate is beginning to come down, albeit much too slowly; the school system is slowly improving and economic development is booming with billions of dollars being invested in the city. Bike lanes are being expanded, garbage is being picked up, murders are down again, streets are being cleaned and citizen service complaints are being processed faster than ever. In the LGBT community, more attention is being paid to issues other than marriage equality.

The District has an unusual political reality. As a federal city, not a state, we have no senators and a non-voting representative in Congress. We have very few local elected officials that impact our day-to-day lives. When we turned the schools over to the mayor, we emasculated the elected school board and the number became even fewer. Today there are only 14 elected officials, 13 council members and the mayor for our local news organizations to focus on.

There is fierce competition among local media for who can get more scoops, and bad news produces more front-page bylines and on airtime than good news. Count how often something good makes the top of the news or the front page vs. something bad and you know why reporters go after the bad news.

A simple survey of local news outlets with one or more reporters covering the mayor and Council highlights why we may feel scandaled-out. There are reporters from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, News 8, WAMU, WTOP, the Examiner, Washington Times, and Washington Post; then add all the columnists (yes I plead guilty), political blogs and neighborhood press all competing to outdo each other for what is in essence a very small audience. The total number of reporters from each of these outlets who at one time or another covers the Council and the mayor means that each of our elected officials has more than one person each covering their every move.

Government should be transparent, but we have arrived at a situation where to hype ratings and sell papers each outlet appears to rehash each scandal and grab for each miniscule bit of news to the point where what was attention grabbing when it was first reported has now gotten people bored and in many cases just turned off.

While on-air and print news outlets try to sell papers and up their ratings, reporting each possible suggested infraction as a huge scandal, the public has become immune to each story that doesn’t have any big dose of new information. This may be partly due to the fact that in this latest round of scandal stories, which began in January, 2011, to date only one Council member has been indicted. Sixteen months later, for all the other supposed scandals both big and small there is no conclusion to the story; no official finding of guilt or innocence or even charges brought.

Running against an incumbent is always difficult. Running against an incumbent on ethics issues when there is no proven wrongdoing is more difficult. And running against an incumbent without an exciting vision for change that directly impacts people’s lives, which was the case with most challengers in this past election, only added to the reasons for the small voter turnout.

1 Comment
  • “While there are many reasons for the low turnout, a big one was that this was a stealth primary.”

    That depends on your Ward. In Ward 4 you would have needed to literally be blind to not know for months ahead of time that the primary was coming; everywhere you looked there were signs up for the various City Council contenders. I suspect Ward 7 and 8 (which also had contested primaries) went through the same thing.

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