Monday, August 27, 2012

13% is no solution

By Bill Kraus

This is being written almost two weeks after the Wisconsin primary election.

I have contacted every imaginable media source and have checked the website of the Government Accountability Board (GAB) in an attempt to find out what the statewide voter turnout was for that election.

No one seems to know. The not-so-current posting by GAB tells us the primary election will be held on August 14.

A helpful soul who seems to be in charge of the public television made several inquiries and come up blank.

I concede that it is a small thing--like an unrepaired broken window--but it seems to me to be symptomatic of larger problems that beset us: the localization of news and the partisanization of elections.

My interest was aroused when the guests on Joy Cardin’s talk show on the Friday after the primary agreed that the turnout was around 13 percent. Neither cited a source, but both seemed confident that they had it right. If they did, the next obvious question is why doesn't anyone in the news business consider this extremely low turnout newsworthy enough to deserve a story or more, like a lament.

Is this yet another symptom of what has happened to the information flow in our reporter-deprived democracy?

It may even be worse than that. I have learned from several sources the turnout numbers in their localities. Madison, for example, was a not impressive but primary typical 23 percent. Madison voters had two important choices to make. The Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate and the Democratic candidate to succeed to Tammy Baldwin’s 2nd congressional district seat.

Madison was not the only high election interest area. There were elections all over the state in this post-redistricting year that were more heavily contested than usual. In Portage County for instance voters had to chose from seven, maybe nine, candidates for an open Assembly seat. Hot races elsewhere featured contests where two incumbents found themselves in the same district. High turnout fodder.

But if 13 percent is indeed the statewide turnout number, it is the latest victim of the dearth of coverage of politics and state government that followed the unfortunate decision by the people who run the Journal Communications company to give up power for money. In the mid-1970s the Journal company stopped delivering the evening Milwaukee Journal, the state’s most powerful, widely read, and authoritative paper beyond the southeastern part of the state. A couple of decades later the Journal company merged the Journal with the Sentinel and a healthy competition between the two statewide papers went the way of home delivery.

Few outstate papers filled the gap left by the Journal company’s abandonment. The result is that more and more news is local. Every paper is, economically anyway, a kind of high-class regional shopper for its local advertisers to which it delivers readers, and those readers are presumed to care about things like voter turnout where they live and only where they live.

What is worse is that the other message that the 13 percent turnout number delivers is not just that holding important elections in Wisconsin in August is a bad idea but that the candidates and their strategists can safely pitch their campaigns to the rabid partisans who make up most of that 13 percent.

These partisans like red meat issues, hard hitting campaigns, and disdain the kinds of compromise and civility that so many others say they want.

Good luck with that in a 13 percent turnout world.

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