"What If They Gave an Election . . . and Nobody Came?”
That was the title of a cover story that appeared long ago in the pages of this magazine, on the eve of the then-traditional “Super Tuesday” presidential primaries, in our March 1988 issue. Written by then-contributing editor Hampton Sides (now better known as the author of such nonfiction bestsellers as Hellhound on His Trail and Ghost Soldiers), the article is something of a lamentation, focusing as it does upon what Sides calls “the myth of American democracy” and voter apathy in Memphis and Shelby County.
Among the many specifics in this lengthy piece, Sides references the appallingly low levels of voter turnout in city run-off elections held the previous November. Granted, only a handful of city council and school board seats were up for grabs, but, overall, the voter turnout was less than 14 percent. “Sure,” says Sides, “it wasn’t the most dazzling campaign this city has ever seen. Still, when 86 percent of the eligible electorate doesn’t care enough to take five minutes to cast a ballot on a fine autumn day, one has to pause and wonder whether something isn’t gravely wrong with the state of grass-roots democracy in this city.”
For the record, we at Memphis are still wondering, two-plus decades after Sides’ voter-apathy article was published. Since then, little progress — make that “no progress whatsoever” — has been made in terms of engaging the people of this city and county in the electoral process. Turnout, for example, in our just-concluded October municipal elections — no runoff this; the mayor’s spot and every council seat were up for grabs — was a remarkably puny 17 percent of registered voters.
By comparison, the Hackett/Higgs mayor’s race back in October 1987 attracted “only” 35 percent of the potential electorate, a figure that was, as Hampton Sides points out, “the lowest turnout for a mayoral campaign since the inception of the new city charter in 1966.” Twenty-four years later, the citizens of Memphis have turned political apathy into something of a way of life, slashing our miserable, rock-bottom 1980s’ voter-participation levels in half. Back then, the combination of what Sides calls “ignorance, indolence, and indifference” posed a grave threat to our democracy. Today, we’re way beyond that; Memphians are digging a grave for democracy.
How have things gone from ridiculously bad to absolutely horrible since 1988? Ignorance, indolence, and indifference still play major roles, of course; to that trio, I might add the fact that local media, with a handful of exceptions, does not do the nuts-and-bolts of election coverage anywhere near as thoroughly as it did in the past. The Commercial Appeal, for example, no longer provides the detailed precinct-by-precinct vote breakdowns that traditionally appeared in the paper a day or two after every local election. And local tv stations often now content themselves with scrolling results along the bottom of our screens, not wanting to interrupt important programming like NFL football games or popular shows like American Idol.
Speaking of American Idol: Americans exercise their right to vote far more avidly on television than they do in actual ballot boxes. A record 122.4 million votes were cast after last May’s season-finale episode, a total that eerily matches the number of votes cast (122,394,724) in the 2008 Obama/McCain presidential race. It shouldn’t be too much longer before Idol winners start getting into “real” politics. Then again, what is real in American politics anymore?
Last December, in District Six, there was a run-off election to fill a Memphis City Schools board vacancy. The MCS was in the midst of surrendering its charter; the fate of the school system literally hung in the balance over the outcome of this particular race. In the end, Sara Lewis won a squeaker over Cheri Davis, 900 votes to 781. Yes, those were the actual numbers of votes cast. In the middle of the greatest Memphis schools controversy in decades, turnout in District Six was just 2.6 percent. Only 1,681 registered voters bothered to show up. More than 60,000 stayed home.
When people decline to vote in elections that really make a difference in their lives, is there really any hope left for our democracy? I wish I could say I was optimistic, but I’m not. As Pogo might say, we have met the enemy, and he is us.
Editor's Note: Read Hampton Sides' March 1988 cover story, "What if They Gave an Election, and Nobody Came," here.