05/04/11: Seeking oxygen for upcoming campaigns

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

VOTERS in Virginia endure elections at least once every year. This November, the 140-member General Assembly is on the ballot. Next fall, federal elections for president and Congress will top the ballot, with some local races, including those in Virginia Beach, farther down. In between, there will be city council elections in May for 24 cities, including Norfolk, as well as primaries in February and June.

There is a drop-off between the votes cast in federal elections and those cast in local elections, even when they appear on the same ballot. Many attribute this drop-off to voter information costs.

Generally, when we think of costs associated with elections, we think of the money spent by campaigns and candidates to try to persuade us to vote for them.

But we voters also incur costs, both direct costs and information costs. The first relate to the time and energy associated with the actual act of voting: getting registered and getting to the polling location. There are a number of academic studies on the direct costs of voting, and much effort has been expended to reduce those costs. The National Motor Voter Registration Act is aimed squarely at making it easier for people to register, and we also no longer pay poll taxes in order to cast our ballots.

Information costs are the time and effort we spend learning about the issues and the candidates on the ballot. For those nonfederal and down-ballot races, the information is generally more difficult to obtain. Think back to the three issues on last November’s ballot. The noise of the congressional races made it harder for voters to learn about these items, which amended our state constitution. The result was fewer votes cast for these ballot items than for the contests at the top of the ballot.

In our busy lives, we reduce our information costs by relying on substitutes. Party identification is a big one: Once we identify a candidate’s party, we tend to feel more comfortable casting a ballot for the one whose party matches our own. Endorsements are another: Candidates tout them for this reason alone. Advertising by candidates and parties also are substitutes.

The danger of using substitutes rather than direct information is the bias inherent in many of them. Projecting national party stances on local candidates is a shoe that often doesn’t fit. Sources of unbiased information, such as voter guides from the nonpartisan League of Women Voters or those printed by this and other newspapers, require that voters already have some understanding of the underlying issues.

It is no surprise, then, that some voters consider the information costs to be too high and stay at home. In the presidential election of 2008, Virginia witnessed turnout of more than 76 percent of active voters, a number that dropped to less than 47 percent a year later in the gubernatorial race.

The effort by many to register more voters seems to not consider that registering is but one of the costs of voting. This effort is based on the very obvious fact that if you are not registered, you can’t vote. But also obvious is that many who register fail to vote in subsequent elections. Equal emphasis needs to be placed on why that is the case.

Fortunately, we have some research that points to a way of reducing information costs without using substitutes — by getting involved. Former president Ronald Reagan said, “Information is the oxygen of the modern age.” The more we participate in our political process, the better informed we are. With the continuous election season in Virginia, we have plenty of opportunity to do so.