Long Beach Vote 2016
Future of Voter Engagement: Is Voting Really Necessary?
The latest updated and unofficial voting tallies from the April 12 Long Beach Primary Election were released and it isn’t pretty. According to the Long Beach City Clerk, only 22,705 of 168,379 registered voters cast a ballot. That’s a 13.48% engagement rate. And that’s the citywide number.
It gets a little better or worse when you look at the individual races:
Updated:04/18/2016 03:19 PM
In 2014, the citywide average was much better, 17.0%. But that race included the Mayor, City Attorney, City Auditor, City Prosecutor and Measure A, General Tax on Medical Marijuana Sales.
As dismal as the citywide average looks today, it is actually better than the last time these seats were up for election in 2012. It was 12.48% back then.
We’ve all heard the reasons for low voter turnout: My vote doesn’t count, I don’t have the time, I don’t know the candidate and issues, and my favorite, it’s just too hard.
Chounlamountry and a number of his CSULB students have been working with Palacio Magazine on a project called Long Beach Vote 2016. Chounlamountry is an Instructor at California State University, Long Beach and Adjunct Assistant Professor, Los Angeles Community College District.
In an often raspy cell phone interview (We kept losing each other’s signal), Chounlamountry spoke about the many reasons non-voters have including the disconnect between citizens and the process. While voting by mail may seem to be a solution for engagement, the Political Science Professor asked me “Sure, but ask them when was the last time they sent something by mail?”
This interview was edited for time.
We began by asking Professor Som Chounlamountry “What are the theories out there about why people don’t vote?”
Som Chounlamountry told us that this is a questions that’s confronted lots of scholars and politicians for some time.
“Some have looked into the political engagement and the disconnect between the voters and the issues and also the disconnect between the voters and the candidates themselves.”
Professor Chounlamountry goes on to quote American political commentator, professor, and author Robert Reich, “There’s a threat to American Democracy that exist and in order for a democracy to fully function, it has to get the participation of its members and mostly its citizens.”
According to Professor Chounlamountry, the Robert Reich list of reasons for non-voting include voter apathy, voter resignation (people believe they couldn’t make q difference) and voter escapism (people who didn’t engage because they wanted to avoid it).
Going forward, the question for the professor is how do we make the process easier. According to Ballotpedia, as of April 2016, “33 states enforced voter identification requirements. A total of 19 states required voters to present photo identification, while 14 accepted other forms of identification.” But voter ID laws are only part of the problem. Professor Chounlamountry says the entire process of voter registration and casting ballots is antiquated.
“The same election and procedure of how we get individuals registered to vote and the voting process, even the voting mechanisms are still very infantile.”
He’s not sure that there are any other institutions that have not changed with technology. “…that haven’t updated itself with the new impulse that young people are demanding. We still have the same process in place that our ancestors had.”
When I asked Professor Chounlamountry about the statement of Long Beach City Clerk Maria De La Luz Garcia, in a recent interview, that people could always use Vote By Mail, he jokingly said, “ Sure, but ask them when was the last time they sent something by mail?”
Professor Chounlamountry’s students tell him that there’s disengagement with them because, “…no one is coming to talk to them at their level.”
“ We see more people voting for American Idol then we see voting for these candidates.”
Surveys show, according to Chounlamountry, that many people don’t vote because they feel it’s something that doesn’t fit into their life. “It’s almost an anachronism when it comes to texting, instant email, Snapchat, Instagram, things are that easily accessible to them.”
Process is only part of the problem. The Political Science Adjunct Professor cites the current political parties and how well they represent the values of his students. “When there’s a wide variety of political opinions, they see two political parties that are very static in opposition for this, opposition for that…they don’t see other alternatives….a lack of having a political choice.”
In Long Beach, there’s another layer of concerns, namely are there too many elections? Our local Primary just occurred. In June, there will be another State and Federal Primary plus the runoff from the most recent local Primary. The good news is that there will be some simplification of the process for voters. But we’ll still be faced with three elections this year.
“Having more of these elections without dealing with the issue of voter engagement only exacerbates the issue,” says Chounlamountry.
Chounlamountry agrees that before we deal with voter participation, we need to deal with the process of engagement. “It’s making it easier for individuals to vote, that may be one of the key ways.”
What does the voter disengagement say about the future of our Republic? Chounlamountry wasn’t as pessimistic as I thought he would be. In fact, he had a really radical idea. Voting may not be as important we think it is.
“I don’t think it indicates any kind of moral failings or any kind of systemic failings because there are other balances in play.”
According to Chounlamountry and the ideas he hears from his students, there are new social movements, ideologies, and a new sense of culture that offset some of our political push.
“Where they still, our Republic and our government still creates these policies, there are also things in play, these narratives, the non-discrimination narrative…there are all these issues that are already ingrained in our consciousness.”
Chounlamountry believes that, in spite of attempts by governments to hold back the tide of progress in civil rights, women’s rights, economic rights that we cannot go back because the culture will not allow it. It would not be acceptable to us. There would be, as there is now, a backlash.
“This is something that I believe is very hopeful for our society and our Republic.”