The 80 percenters: Tunisia and Tulsa
BY MIKE JONES Associate Editor
Sunday, October 30, 2011
10/30/11 at 5:03 AM
Here's a number to keep in mind: 80. That's the percentage of voting age Tunisians who turned out for their first democratic election since the overthrow of the country's dictator earlier this year. In fact, that number might be even higher as many women and young people registered at the last minute.
Not counting countries where dictators stage elections, force everyone of age - sometimes at the point of a gun, - to go the polls and win in a "landslide," new democracies usually have excellent voluntary turnouts at the polls.
The "Arab Spring" began in Tunisia this year and spread. Libya is the latest to overthrow its dictator and when elections are scheduled there, a huge turnout is likely.
Tunisia's democratic election, its first since it became independent in 1956, probably causes concern for some. After all, the leading vote-getter in the election was the Islamist party, Ennahada. The two secular parties, the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol finished second and third.
Don't let the Islamist tag fool you. Ennahada is a centrist party. Montsuf Marzouki, the leader of CPR said: "Tunisians want centrist politics. They want an Arab-Muslim identity (Ennahada) and also democracy and human rights represented by the two parties CPR and Ettakatol.
That's encouraging from one of the parties that came in second.
So, Tunisians were happy to vote and gladly marched to the polls in great numbers. That is not a guarantee of a successful and democratic government in Tunisia, but it bodes well.
Maybe it's the newness of democracy that makes everyone so adamant about voting. Maybe in a couple of hundred years they will become as complacent as those of us where democracy was born.
Actually, Americans have rarely been enthusiastic about voting. Voting numbers is a tricky science when one gets back into the early days of this union. But it seems that in the presidential elections of 1824 - 48 years after the nation declared its independence and 35 years after the election of George Washington as the first president - the turnout was about 30 percent. By 1828 that number had jumped to around 50 percent.
The election of Abraham Lincoln brought out 81.2 percent of the eligible voters and in 1876, the country's centennial year, 81.8 percent showed up at the polls.
For the most part it's hovered around the 50 percent to 60 percent range. Even the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt only brought about 60 percent out to vote. The John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon election of 1960 drew 63.1 percent and the 1968 Nixon-Hubert Humphrey match garnered 60.8 percent. That race had the added show of George Wallace running on the segregation forever ticket, which might have brought a few more votes out of the woods.
The 2008 election between Barack Obama and John McCain, a race that saw the country's first African-American elected president, drew 56.8 percent.
Off-year elections, when members of the House of Representatives as well as many governors face the voters, normally bring out around 35 percent of the voters.
Americans have another presidential election coming up in about a year. No one should expect a big change in voting numbers. Although the electorate is demanding change and the popularity ratings of both Congress and the president are alarmingly low.
Closer to home, Tulsans on Nov. 8 will head to the polls to elect a new slate of city councilors and vote on some proposed changes to our system of government. I won't get into the strengths or weaknesses of candidates and proposals here, that will be saved for another time.
Angry or lazy?
What this is about is voting. The turnout of eligible Tulsa voters in the recent primary was dismal. In 2009, the city elected a new mayor and city councilors and 30 percent of voters found time to show up - 30 percent!
This time Tulsans have said they are fed up with the bickering at City Hall. They said they wanted a change. In fact, voters defeated four incumbents and three decided not to seek re-election. District 1 incumbent Jack Henderson, with no general election opponent, won his primary, and incumbent G.T. Bynum, a Republican in heavily Republican District 9, faces Democrat Mike Batman.
Still, only 16 percent were fed up enough to go vote. The biggest council turnover in the city's contemporary history was made by 16 percent of the registered voters. That means 84 percent of the voters weren't all that angry or were simply too lazy or indifferent to take the time to vote.
Low turnouts mean that only a few people decide the course of a city, state or country. Extremists on both sides count on voter apathy in order to increase their influence over candidates and officeholders.
I told you to keep that number 80 in mind. Eighty percent of Tunisians show up to vote and 84 percent of Tulsans just can't be bothered.
We still have a chance. We could turn it around on Nov. 8. I won't hold my breath.
Original Print Headline: The 80 percenters
Mike Jones, 918-581-8332
A Tunisian casts her vote on Oct. 23 in the country's first free elections. HASSENE DRIDI/Associated Press