Arizona Voter Crisis?

I attended a conference sponsored by the Arizona Clean Elections Commission and the Morrison Institute of Arizona State University on November 19, 2018, entitled Arizona’s Voter Crisis. Cronkite news reported on the event here, which was picked up by Flagstaff’s newspaper and published November 21 here.  Perhaps it’s hard to understand the concern about a “voter crisis,” much less an entire conference devoted to the topic, especially after a midterm election with record turnout. Frankly, it’s harder for me to tolerate “experts” bewailing a crisis without a serious plan to address it — or even a plan to get to a plan. It’s like sending “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting. Nice, but get your expressions of sympathy ready because more mass shootings are surely coming down the pike if that’s all we can muster. 

Activists and voters should pat themselves on the back about this past election. Several Arizona counties set new records, including our own, Coconino County, with 67.2% of registered voters voting. The State voter turnout clocked over the finish line at 64.85%. Sounds pretty good until one realizes that half of the adults over age 18 are not registered. That brings us down to a one-third voter-engagement rate. Furthermore, we’ve seen turnout at these levels in the past — notably 1982 — only to have voters back away from civic engagement in subsequent elections. 

This state of affairs is only a crisis, of course, if one considers voting participation important.  I do. We call ourselves a democracy after all. Furthermore, while some see political competition as a dirty business that breeds discord, I see it as a means to resolve our differences in a (relatively) peaceful manner. If too many people lose confidence in our political system as a means to resolve differences in how to govern ourselves, the alternative becomes warfare.  So, let’s proceed with the notion that increased eligible voter participation is desirable. (I’ll come back to this later.)

Random Notes

I want to share some notes I took at the conference of comments by the academics and other luminaries on panels and podiums.  These don’t have much to do with the topic of the conference, but they are interesting observations on the 2018 Election.

  • Campaigns matter. When margins are this close, outcomes are determined by thoughtful voters.
  • The rural/urban split in Arizona was more evident in this election than ever before.
  • Women were the wave.
  • The top-level ticket-splitting was surprising (in its magnitude)
  • People were very engaged over Prop 305 because people love their school districts. People move for good school districts and this has implications for the legislative district maps which Republicans in the legislature should pay attention to as they go forward with school funding issues. Some “safe” Republican districts with good schools aren’t going to be so safe for Republicans anymore if they keep up what they have been doing.
  • Republicans turn in ballots early; Democrats turn them in later.
  • Millennials increased their turnout substantially
  • Turnout was not surprising given the amount of money spent on turnout — text messaging and social media ads played a big role
  • The mayoral race in Phoenix may have bumped turnout in Maricopa County
  • Latinxs like to hold onto their ballots — thanks to Maricopa County for the extra days for “emergency” voting
  • Hobbs and Hoffman won in the face of overwhelming expenditures for their opponents due to unprecedented groundwork and social media campaigning
  • Typically,  the big money in Arizona midterms is for ballot propositions. This time candidate campaigns may have overshadowed the ballot propositions. [Author note: Because statewide Democratic candidates actually had a chance this time!]
  • Prop 305 was a true grassroots movement. [This came up several times — the pros seemed a bit stunned by this.]
  • The biggest complaint coming into the Secretary of State’s office about disenfranchisement is from voters who moved and didn’t check the box to change their voter registration address when they changed their address with the Department of Motor Vehicles. They show up at the polls and find they are not registered — or realize it after the voter registration deadline. [This is a simple administrative fix, which Katie Hobbs is committed to doing.]
  • Nationally, there was a big surge in Independents turning out — larger than the surge of either Rs or Ds. In 2008-2015, Independents voted for disruption. In 2018, they said this is enough disruption. 
  • “We live in Newt Gingrich’s world. Policy is impossible, politicians’ decisions are all about retaining power.”
  • “Emotion drives turnout.”
  • “Polarization makes me sad.”

Was there a blue wave?

Panelists in the afternoon were asked “Was there a Blue Wave?” Responses:

  • A journalist from the Weekly Standard: “I can’t see anything other than a negative vote on Trump.”  Democrats didn’t gain as much power as “some” would require to call it a wave election [ever hear of gerrymandering?]; “but it’s clear there was an opinion wave.”
  • Washington Post reporter: “Definitely, it was not a red wave.”
  • Independent Voter expert: “It was a wave of women making a difference.”
  • ASU Dean: “‘Wave’ implies a seismic shift. This may be a particular reaction — a desire to impose a check — rather than a ‘wave.'”

Can We Please Address the Crisis?

Like so many academic conferences, the bulk of the time was spent defining the crisis with very little time spent on practical solutions. Worse, the conference leaders seemed determined to obscure an important point from their own data in order to avoid controversial solutions. By controversial, I mean here solutions Republicans in the Arizona Legislature won’t like.

In July, the Morrison Institute, with funding from the Clean Elections Commission, issued a report on the crisis and traveled about the state presenting its findings.  You can read the full report, as slightly revised post-November 6, here. The July report inspired another publication, which was designed to address the sub-crisis of low turnout in primary elections. This report, entitled Arizona Primary Elections: Primarily Forgotten, is worth the read and can be found here.

What’s the Morrison Institute’s final conclusion for addressing Arizona’s Voter Crisis? “Education is the key.” (July Report, p. 24) My reaction: Really?

The ASU/Morrison Institute folks ignored one striking bit of original research based on their poll of Arizona voters, likely because it didn’t fit comfortably with the thesis they began with, which is that if only Arizona non-voters had access to more civics education, more of them would vote. But the key bit of information that belies that thesis is that 28% of those who say they didn’t vote in the 2016 General Election gave as their primary reason “No time/too busy.” (Table 7, p. 22 of the July Report.) If people say they are too busy to vote, surely they are too busy to receive further information via civics classes?

When asked about improving access to voting by such means as opening the polls on the weekend before Election Day, same-day voter registration, and declaring Election Day a holiday, one panelist remarked that “it’s already so easy to vote in Arizona that those actions are unlikely to increase participation.”  Another panelist, Garret Archer, did concede that allowing automatic voter registration updates through the Motor Vehicles Department when registered voters move would help. Another panelist Neil Giuliano, president and CEO of Greater Phoenix Leadership, said: “Being politically realistic, voter registration reform issues don’t happen very often in red states.” (Cronkite News)

But Arizona is no longer a red state. With Democrats sweeping four statewide races and holding a majority of the nine Congressional seats, Arizona is at least purple. The more voter participation we have, the bluer we’ll get. Which is why Republicans resist voting reforms while giving lip service to improving voter engagement. That was the elephant in the room at this conference and it’s an issue that needs to be brought out of the closet in future elections. We don’t control the legislature yet, but one way to remain in that condition is to be shy about solving real problems.

Imagine campaigns confronting people who say they don’t have time to vote by laying the blame where it belongs? Would you vote if you could on the Sunday before Election Day? Would you like to vote now if you could walk into the polls on Tuesday even though you forgot to register a month ago? How would you like Election Day to be a holiday? “I’m in favor of all those reforms,” the candidate would say. “My opponent is not. If that makes you mad, go out of your way on Tuesday and vote to fix it by electing me.”

In Coconino County, our local Democratic Party tried a variety of things to make voting easier. Before the primary, we talked to voters about what the primary means and let them know that Independents could vote in Arizona primary elections and were welcome to vote in the Democratic Primary. We offered a colorful brochure highlighting candidates running as Democrats and our values. After the primary, we continued the effort begun in 2017 to find and register new voters. We did an unprecedented outreach effort to Navajo voters. We told voters about early voting — by mail and in person. We publicized Vote Centers and their advantages. We publicized childcare and ride-to-the-poll options.  We created a sample ballot which voters were excited to receive. We incorporated all of these things into our canvassing efforts so that we were not simply surveying for candidates but making voting easier. We sponsored events on issues that mattered to voters and endorsed propositions, explaining why we were for things that mattered to voters. The result — record turnout in the county, not only in the percentage of registered voters who voted but also in the number of people who voted.

The ASU Dean noted that emotion drives turnout. Indeed, if voters see a connection between voting and their daily lives, they care and they vote. Thus, healthcare was a driving force in the 2018 Election. Education funding drove teachers and parents to the polls. Gun violence drove Millennials to the polls — in record numbers. The panelists at this event discounted these issues, seeing turnout as higher merely in reaction to a vague sense of “discord and turmoil” in our nation or — to the extent they dared mention him — reaction to Trump. One panelist asked if anyone in the room thought that voter turnout had anything to do with a message put out by the Democrats as opposed to the disruption created by Trump and challenged anyone to say what that message was — obviously expecting silence. Several shouted out “healthcare,” but that didn’t fit with the theme of the day — which was that voters are uneducated. On the contrary, I think adults are plenty educated about the issues that matter in their daily lives. It’s just hard to get to the polls for many of them. We can fix that.