By Kaye Kory
Published by the Falls Church News-Press on June 10, 2015
This year’s primary election includes several significant state and local-level contests that will have real consequences for my constituents in the 38th District, as well as for residents of the City of Falls Church and other residents of Mason District. State Senate Democratic primary contests in Prince William County and in Richmond will impact whether or not control of the Senate shifts back to the Democrats after the resignation of Senator Phil Puckett (D-Russell) a year ago. Democratic control of the Senate would dramatically increase the Governor’s leverage to implement funding priorities for health care, education, transportation and the environment.
Locally, the primary election for Mason District Supervisor will likely impact: (1) the scope and content of the Seven Corners redevelopment initiative; (2) funding levels that the Board of Supervisors (BOS) will provide Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) to address the inner county educational challenges; and, (3) quality of life impacts of infrastructure investment (or failures to invest) in transportation.
The election results will be known and thoroughly analyzed by the time this column appears, so it would be unwise to speculate on the outcome. I care about the results of the election; but my biggest concern is with the process but not with the outcome. In electoral districts with large majorities from one party or another, primary elections all but determine the outcome for the general election. For example, last year Don Beyer won the Democratic Primary for Virginia’s 8th Congressional District with 17,783 votes, just 46% of the 38,800 votes cast. But the 8th District has over 480,000 registered voters. This means that, in effect, 4% of the voters in the District determined who would be the next Congressman! That an election with such high stakes is decided by such a small fraction of eligible voters seems very wrong.
Similar factors impacted my own entry into politics. In 1999, I was an angry mom and community activist, seven years into a battle with the FCPS Facilities Division over their failure to invest in Mason District schools. The deplorable overcrowding—remember the trailers—and physical condition of the school buildings—think leaky roofs and routine sewer back-ups—had motivated me and like-minded neighbors to press School Board Members and Supervisors for change. Though firmly under control of Democrats, both the BOS and the School Board failed to recognize or address the extraordinary resource demands placed on FCPS as a result of the rapid demographic transition in older parts of the county. At the time, I saw my June 1999 special election as a crossroads for equitable treatment of students in Mason District, and this theme drove my campaign. However, only 6.3% of Mason District’s 46,000+ eligible voters turned out for the election and I was elected with slightly over 4% of the total.
On one level the explanation for such phenomena is simple arithmetic; but the larger question is why the electorate is willing to tolerate this astonishing mismatch between the ideals of democratic governance and the reality of the process in action. This observation is certainly not a new one, but when this dynamic once again drives a high stakes election that will have serious consequences for many years to come, I think it warrants some reflection.
I believe there are two major factors that cause the electorate to be willing to forego their democratic rights/responsibilities. The first is the utter distrust that the vast majority of voters have for virtually all political speech. Distrust, though, is not disbelief. Rather, distrust is a rejection of any fact or assertion– without regard for the evidence–that contradicts a pre-existing belief. Such distrust causes potential voters simply to “tune out” during election cycles.
The second factor is a phenomenon described by none other than Ronald Reagan as “the soft tyranny of low expectations.” In other words, if election after election, from one party to another, little seems to change for the better, the electorate gets the message: they are not in control.
I’m sure that I am overstating the case, but I am equally sure that political participation is diminishing as partisan discord is on the rise. We will not be able to ignore these trends over the long term.