What did it all mean?

An exciting campaign year now becomes grist for the scholars’ mill

It wasn’t easy for one Sparks voter to get to the polls, but she did. She was permitted to remain seated, and her place in line was held for her at her Sparks High School polling place.

It wasn’t easy for one Sparks voter to get to the polls, but she did. She was permitted to remain seated, and her place in line was held for her at her Sparks High School polling place.

Photo By Dennis Myers

The 2004 election is fast fading in the public’s consciousness, but it remains a subject of study to political scientists and experts in turnout, who will be poring over the returns for years to find out what they mean beyond who won and who lost.

Earlier this year, Curtis Gans, director of the Washington, D.C., Center for the Study of the American Electorate, predicted a low turnout in Nevada but still a significant rise from previous years (RN&R, “Expect another Nevada voting failure,” April 29). He was right on both counts.

Gans argued that the political polarization of the nation during the Bush administration had more people than usual motivated to vote. He says turnout in Nevada this year rose 8.97 percentage points from the 45.3 percent of eligible voters who turned out in 2000. (There are conflicting figures for turnout—the Federal Elections Commission puts Nevada’s 2000 turnout at 43.9 percent.)

That puts Nevada back to the level of voter turnout that existed in 1968—a year in which many community leaders complained about the low 54.3 percent turnout. It’s also the first time the state has broken the 50 percent mark since ‘68. Turnout, with a few ups and downs, has been in steady decline ever since.

Moreover, Gans argues that, while any increase in turnout is heartening, what happened this year is not the healthiest kind of a boost in turnout. It was, he says, essentially a negative protest vote—people going to the polls to vote against and not for, voting because they’re angry, not because they believe in voting, a type of turnout increase that isn’t likely to be sustained in future elections.

“I attribute it to George Bush, pro and against,” Gans says of the increase in turnout.

“I tend to agree with that because one would be inclined to think that sooner or later we will get a president that will not polarize the country the way Clinton and Bush 43 did,” says UNR political scientist Richard Siegel. “I agree it’s unhealthy, but I don’t agree with him that it’s short term. And it’s not necessarily the country that’s being polarized by the candidate. It’s the candidate that’s being demonized by the country that causes the polarization.”

Another subject for debate is news coverage and the role it plays in turnout. Some political scientists and journalism scholars believe that the tone of cynicism that permeates political coverage helps depress turnout.

For instance, they say that many campaign debates are dismissed under the heading “mudslinging” when in fact they involve legitimate issues. As an example, a discussion in the Washoe County Family Court judge race between candidates Pete Sferrazza and Chuck Weller over whether Sferrazza’s experience as a Tribal Court judge was relevant to the Family Court is listed on one local television station’s Web page under this headline: “Mudslinging in the Family Court Judge Race.”

“Oh, no, no, no,” Siegel said when the headline was read to him. “It is actually difficult to develop legitimate issues in a judicial race, and that is one that is legitimate.” Discussing the candidates’ credentials is always useful, he says.

UNR journalism professor Jake Highton agrees.

“That’s not negative campaigning, that’s just someone saying, ‘I don’t think he’s qualified.’ That’s valid,” Highton says.

Siegel adds, “My major argument for lower turnout than some expected was that we had so much energy put into registering people that we artificially raised expectations. Everywhere you turned there was someone asking if you wanted to register.”

High registration has a long history of creating false expectations. When “motor voter” (registering to vote at the Motor Vehicles Department) was introduced in Nevada in 1988, a presidential year, it created a big jump in registrations but only a minor rise in turnout—3.4 percent over the previous presidential election.

Siegel also says one of the things that is hard to judge is ex-felon voting. It became legal and easy for former prison inmates to vote for the first time this year, but it may be hard to judge the impact because so little scholarly work was done in the state.

Because of federally imposed racial sentencing disparities, the votes of ex-felons are generally regarded as a boost for Democrats. For instance, powdered-cocaine (mostly used by whites) prosecutions are less likely to be prosecuted and more likely to be diverted into rehab than crack-cocaine (mostly used by blacks) cases. In 1998, when U.S. Sen. Harry Reid won re-election by 428 votes, there were 10,500 African-Americans disenfranchised by drug convictions in Nevada, according to University of Nevada disenfranchisement specialist Christopher Uggen. They can now vote.

Students of politics will also have a plethora of exit polls from which to learn about Nevada’s election. NBC, CNN/Time, the Washington Post and several other media entities have posted their exit polling on Nevada.

When asked what would lead to a healthier rise in voter turnout, Gans responds with a laundry list:

“Improving the quality of education, improving both the quality and quantity of civic education, getting young people back to reading newspapers, studying and debating and being tested on current events, rebuilding our mediating and training institutions for the young (student government, student newspapers) …maybe [he spoke cautiously here] considering a year of national service after high school, reorienting our values away from self-seeking and hostility to government and individual consumerist choice, rebuilding our integrating institutions (our churches, our schools, our unions, and particularly our political parties, realigning our political parties), reregulating the broadcast industry so they cover politics … ceasing being one of the only democracies in the world that doesn’t regulate political advertising on television. I think those are the things that will provide for a durable resurrection."