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Craig A. Thompson: After trials, let’s focus on voter turnout

Both during and after the very public fraud and conspiracy trials of members of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s campaign team, discussions surrounding voter suppression filled the airwaves and public domain.

Radio show hosts railed against the notion that the rights of voters we being trampled. Journalists wrote stories about the history of voter suppression throughout our nation’s history. Law schools and other institutions discussed and debated the various intricacies of election laws, with an eye toward understanding how and why those in political power do what they do to influence the thinking and behavior of the electorate.

Now that these trials are technically over (a sentencing hearing and appeals are on schedule), the discussions in our state about voter behavior should be expanded to include a serious assessment of why people simply are not voting.

Whatever the prevailing opinions are with regard to the alleged acts of Paul Schurick and Julius Henson, the reality is that the percentage of people exercising their rights to vote in Maryland and nationally is decreasing. This lack of participation in the political process has occurred irrespective of any alleged fraud or conspiracy on the part of any campaign or persons working on behalf of a campaign.

Clearly, any individual or group of individuals who intentionally or recklessly impedes the voting rights of any person or groups of people should be punished, and the law should be followed when navigating the complex rules of elections. However, it cannot be argued that the current voter apathy is related primarily or predominantly to efforts to suppress any votes, and our open discussions must take into account the growing suspicion and detachment felt by a large cohort of the public.

Lower and lower

Political analysts have suggested that the turnout for the 2012 Maryland presidential primary election was the lowest in 32 years, some suggesting numbers as low as 25 percent of registered voters going to the polls. This phenomenon of voter disengagement is not unique to Maryland, and other states and the District of Columbia have seen similar reductions in the numbers of people taking the time to vote.

Indeed, even “special” local elections for judges and school board members have seen a decrease in the percentages of people who pull the lever or push the button for their preferred candidates.

There are numerous reasons why citizens either engage or disengage from the political process. Some political theorists have even used a form of game theory and take into account the ability of voters to interact. These studies have found that the expected turnout for any large election could continue to be very low in light of the current thoughts about politics and the political process. According to these theories, the basic formula for determining whether an individual will vote is PB + D > C.

According to this game formula, “P” is the probability that one person’s vote will affect the outcome of a given election, “B” is the perceived benefit an individual would receive if that individual’s favored party or candidate were elected. “D” initially stood for duty (i.e., civic), but currently represents a social or personal gratification one gets from voting. “C” represents the time, effort and costs involved in voting.

What is duty?

According to the theorists, “P” is virtually always zero, and “B” is also near zero; consequently, “D” becomes the most important factor motivating people to vote, and for a person to vote, these factors must outweigh “C.” If these game theorists are correct, it is critical that we understand why the civic duty that our neighbors have fails to outweigh the costs associated with taking the time to go to the polls and vote.

Various researchers have attempted to develop an understanding of what constitutes the “D” for different voters. At least five forms of duty have been identified: compliance with a social obligation to vote; affirmation of an allegiance to the political/social system; demonstration of a partisan preference; confirmation of one’s importance to the political system; and fulfillment of a desire to research and make an informed decision.

These factors, when shifted in any manner, can significantly affect a voter’s motivation to “pay the cost” to vote. As a community, we should endeavor to understand the bases for any shifts.

The coming presidential election has the potential to affect our nation and the world for the next 15 to 25 years. It is essential that we work toward building a foundation that strengthens and shapes our future; more important, we must candidly assess and implement what will motivate and inspire more people to play a role in that process.

Craig A. Thompson, who writes a monthly column for The Daily Record, is a partner at Venable LLP and represents clients in the areas of commercial litigation, products liability and personal injury. He is the chair of the firm’s diversity committee. He is also the host of a weekly two-way talk radio show and the author of a series of children’s books on African-American history. His email address is [email protected]