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How ‘voter apathy’ should inspire the news media

In the last week, a bit of digital ink was spilled about how registered voter turnout for California’s primaries this week would be far lower than in the 2021 recall election and 2018 midterms. Much of this analysis, though, was quite thin and often amounted to click-bait headlines such as “Apathy hurts everybody” (Los Angeles Times); “Do voters care?” (CalMatters); and “A midterm alarm for Dems in California” (Politico).

(Editor’s 7/28/22 note: These low-voter turnout predictions ultimately proved completely unfounded. Final primary figures found that more Californians voted in the 2022 primaries than in any California midterm primary ever.)

Characteristic of most of these stories was another problem common to modern political journalism: little self-reflection. Though the articles cited many factors that could account for diminished voter interest — some valid, others not — nowhere did the media evaluate its own contribution. This factor is what I’ve come to call political media apathy. This arises from the continued declining resources media outlets are devoting to covering politics and the diminished quality of what it does cover. Thus it reasons that the news media is not only part of the problem, but the only part of the problem they have direct control to change.

Thus if media outlets aren’t going to cover regular campaign finance outrages, expose ever-more-bold far right extremism in politics, hold incumbents accountable, vigorously cover local politics, crusade against the increasing corporate political oligopoly or give visibility to virtuous but underfunded candidates, should it really surprise how many voters see politics as a dispiriting, repetitive waste of their time and attention?

And the quality of what is covered isn’t great. Take all of those stories about a supposed great backlash against California Democrats because of crime and inflation. Yes, San Francisco recalled its D.A., but elsewhere those issues did not result in any surprise results. Also, the dominant media narrative about the gubernatorial recall was how vulnerable Gov. Newsom was, but he defeated it with 62% voting against the recall.

Wanted: Political Fact Checker

Also consider that Los Angeles Times’ article referenced above, “Apathy hurts everybody.” The piece featured some interesting man-on-the-street responses, but most of it fell back on tired blame-the-voter narratives and poor comparison that proved vaporous upon further review. Take this passage:

The Democratic consultant [Paul Mitchell] predicts primary turnout is likely to be under 30%. “Nothing puts this in better contrast than looking at Georgia right now: They’re doing everything they can, it seems, to make it harder to vote, yet they are having record turnout because voters there feel the future of the country is at stake.”

So how just stark of a contrast is provided by the Georgia primary last month? It turns out the Georgia primary turnout was just under 30%. To be precise, 27%. Further, Mitchell even told Politico’s California Playbook the day after the primary that he expects California’s turnout now to be – wait for it – 27%. So much for a stark contrast.

This is just lazy reporting. It ignores the old journalism adage “Even if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” So just because a political data “expert” or the national media herd strongly pushes a particular narrative, reporters are not relieved of their professional duty to verify. Unfortunately, so much political journalism nowadays stops short of such basic research and fact-checking, which makes the end product of even less value to the readers and viewer. Plus such due diligence can often lead reporters to more germane, informative story angles.

Take that unexamined Georgia turnout claim. Even if the California turnout ended up being much less than Georgia, that state’s 27% primary turnout is nothing to tout even if a record. That’s like saying asbestos sales last year hit a 50-year high. In other words, a bad product is just a bad product. An average voter quoted in the Times piece put it this way: “They’re all the same,” she said. Once politicians “get inside that political machine, that just somehow sucks their soul out.”

But what’s missing from the article is an answer to “why” about that modern soul-sucking “political machine.” But the article wasn’t that industrious, and media outlets like the Los Angeles Times seldom cover the out-of-control, tail-wag-the-dog growth of America’s political industrial complex.

Yet beyond their similar 27% voter turnouts, what’s common to both Georgia and California primaries is how uncompetitive they were. (Trump’s endorsing against Georgia’s incumbent Republican governor and secretary of state aside.) Consider that the top of the Georgia Democratic ticket featured no one of note running against Stacie Abrams for the party’s gubernatorial nomination, and Raphael Warnock ran unopposed for the Senate nomination. Likewise, lightning-rod Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene easily won her primary with nearly 70% of the GOP primary vote in her district.

Rank-Choice Voting?

Based on this, perhaps a more worthy question to probe is whether the American taxpayer should be paying to hold such largely worthless primaries anymore. Few races are competitive and not largely dominated by wealthy individual and corporate donors. Plus media outlets deem candidates without such large-donor support as not credible enough to merit coverage. In this light, the argument against publicly funded primaries for the corporate-backed political parties can sound seem a lot like the argument against publicly subsidized billion-dollar stadiums for billionaire-owned sports teams.

In California, our all-in “jungle” primaries add an extra wrinkle to the discussion; however for similar reasons, California’s experiment sine 2012 has resulted in primaries effectively as uncompetitive as in other states. Large individual and corporate donors will back the incumbent and, at most, one opponent from the other party. Most media outlets give scant if any coverage to candidates who eschew such donations (even as media outlets editorialize about how corrupting such money is). Then the primary confirms these top two candidates, and the general election becomes an expensive exercise in rinse-and-repeat.

This makes California’s two rounds of elections basically an expensive, drawn-out version of rank-choice voting. So why not just eliminate the primary and add rank-choice voting to the fall general election?

How much would that save? The final cost to California for the 2021 gubernatorial recall was $200 million. By eliminating the primary round, this would provide the money needed to establish the rank-choice infrastructure and resources needed to perhaps even more quickly tabulate the ballots. Then moving forward, the savings could be plowed elsewhere.

And if either party wished to reinstate their own partisan nominating elections, let them and their corporate backers pay for it. Since nearly 30% of the state is registered as no-party preference or third party, it’s really not fair to charge them for partisan primaries.

So instead of another superficial blame-the-voters (but not ourselves) media report on voter apathy, far more useful would be for large California news outlets to more deeply examine what truly ails our electoral system. In this way, “voter apathy” could at least inspire media outlets to deliver political news content of greater value to their audiences – and the California political system – than at present.

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