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September 25, 2014

Some people see low primary turnout and say why; I see low turnout and say, why not?

I know, I know – I’m a political scientist and I should be urging all to the polls. I’m not qualified to enter into dialogue with my public choice theory colleagues but let me say that perhaps voters stayed home on primary day because they are rational.

Why is it rational to stay home? Let me start with money. It can’t fail but be some part of the voters’ disinterest that they have such little voice and money is amplified like a Led Zeppelin arena concert. “Voters, seeing money as dominant in elections and increasingly convinced that corruption is the political rule, feel a lack of voice and representation.” That seems to me a timely quote but it comes from Wilson Carey McWilliams’ essay on the 1992 presidential election appearing in his collection The Politics of Disappointment. A generation later things have gotten much, much worse. The Supreme Court has taught us that when the words “We the People” emerged from the constitutional convention in 1787 George Washington, James Madison et al. meant not only natural persons are people, but corporations are people too, my friend. Then too the Court teaches us that money is speech and that places certain people in a very good position, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t put the average citizen in a very good position at all.

Since Massachusetts law now requires timely disclosure of SuperPAC contributions we know that the Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association are heavy investors in the SuperPacs backing respectively Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker. (Click on the links to found out who are investing in the governors associations at opensecrets.org). The Democrats top seven givers are all people who are unions, except for a person named Blue Cross/Blue Shield at number three. Then we get to people named AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, Pfizer, Wal-Mart, etc. The RGA list is topped by people named Koch Industries, Las Vegas Sands, Elliott Management, the bipartisan person Blue Cross/Blue Shield, etc.

I did not search the name of Jocelyn Hutt, the Roslindale non-voter who nonetheless participated in the 2013 mayoral election by fronting for the unknown interest that ponied up nearly a half million dollars in dark money backing Marty Walsh. That interest turned out to be the American Federation of Teachers, a revelation all the more important so that the AFT president could be assured a good time at the inauguration.

Before leaving the topic of money let me mention Prof. Martin Gilens’ book Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America in which he presents his research that the national government is fairly responsive to the top ten percent of wage earners but completely unresponsive to anyone else.

Oh hell, one more money reference. In the special primary election for US Senate in 2013, the Democratic Senatatorial Campaign Committee all but cleared the field for Ed Markey by squeezing contributors. The lone challenger was Stephen Lynch who told the Boston Herald “No they haven’t been fair. I think they’ve done their best to discourage people from sending me contributions from Washington. They’ve basically said Markey’s our guy, don’t give to Lynch. . . . It’s considerable. It’s tough when the party’s against you. The Senate Democratic committee has $40 million in their SuperPac.” In other words the DSCC chose the senator, the voters simply ratified the choice.

I also wonder if the candidates did little to interest voters. Attorney General Martha Coakley seemed to side with moneyed interests on her decisions on casinos and Partners Health Care, while Steve Grossman spoke of being a “progressive jobs creator” – hoping the modifier “progressive” would soften the term “job creator,” a phrase routinely used by Republicans to explain their own support of the rich. Don Berwick distinguished himself from the other two with his refrain for single payer health care. Voters might have wondered how that monumental transition could be carried out by a party that bollixed the daunting but lesser challenges of implementing online registration for Obamacare and the Massachusetts Health Care Connector.

Finally, why wait for election day when the voters were being instructed by media polls at least weekly and sometimes more often that Attorney General Coakley would trounce her Democratic opponents?

So does heading to the polls sound like rational behavior?

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