A mighty noise echoed out of tv newscasts all across America on the evening of Tuesday, June 10th, that sound being made by the explosion of dozens of “talking heads,” as perplexed pundits inside the Washington Beltway marveled at the occasion of the country’s first-ever defeat of a sitting Congressional leader in a political primary. Eric Cantor was the House Majority Leader who went down to ignominious defeat that evening in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District, well and truly beaten by a hitherto unknown Tea Party opponent with the appropriate surname of Brat.
The wheezy post-mortems were endless; the Leader was out of touch with his district, his support of immigration cost him dearly, etc. But the real story had nothing to do with all that. The real winner in this race was neither Mr. Cantor nor Mr. Brat; it was Mr. Nobody.
Only about 65,000 people bothered to vote in this particular Republican primary. (Cantor got roughly 29,000 votes, while his upstart opponent claimed 36,000.) But considering the fact that 221,000 Republicans had voted for the Majority Leader in his own district in the 2012 general election, this past June’s result translated into what amounted to a 156,000-vote landslide for, yes, Mr. Nobody. The vast majority of VA-7 Republicans chose to vote this time with their feet or, more properly, with their butts.
Lamenting that district’s 14 percent voter turnout, The New York Times’ Charles Blow posed this question: “What does it say about America as a society and as a class of voters when so many sit home, and allow the voices of so few to carry so much weight?”
By now we should all know what it says about us, Mr. Blow. As citizens of a country long famous, internationally, for being the most apathetic democracy in the world, we by now should be used to seeing occasionally absurd election results. None of us should have been shocked by what happened to Eric Cantor.
Over twenty-five years ago, this magazine published a cover story (see inset) on voter apathy in Memphis, in which we lamented the fact that the October 1987 mayoral election generated “only” a 35 percent voter turnout. Ha.
Turn the clock forward to 2013. Voter turnout barely topped 18 percent in last year’s mayoral race, just over half of what it was when this magazine’s editors felt obliged to press the alarm bell in 1987. If we were apathetic way back then, today we might be better described as electorally comatose.
We outdid even ourselves, however, here in Shelby County last May, in terms of staying home for the Democratic and Republican primary elections for county and state offices. Only 8 percent of us bothered to drag ourselves to the polls. Each of the parties’ victorious candidates for county mayor “won” their nominations with the votes of less than 5 percent of Shelby County’s adult population.
“You snooze, you lose.” This should be our Memphis election bumper sticker, as we go into the forthcoming August election cycle, when not only county and state positions will be decided (along with party representatives for federal office) but also, more importantly, each and every judiciary position in Shelby County. You may think it’s meaningless who gets to sit on our city council or school board, but if you think the quality of the people who run our criminal and civil courts is unimportant, then you clearly are living on another planet.
So do this community a favor. Study the candidates’ records carefully (the Memphis Flyer, our sister publication, will be publishing the results of the Shelby County Bar Association’s poll as regards judicial candidates in the weeks leading up to the August 7th election) and get yourself to the polls either that day or during the early voting period that begins July 18th and ends August 2nd. This time around, let’s all send Mr. Nobody a message.