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    In 2015, only 30 percent of registered Kentuckians voted in the gubernatorial election between Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Matt Bevin, who’s up for re-election next month against Andy Beshear. Four years ago, some counties had turnout as low as 19 or 20 percent. To try to understand voter apathy, we talked to Jason Gainous, a University of Louisville political science professor and co-author of the 2014 book Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution in American Politics.


    Shouldn’t these hyper-partisan times fire up voters? 

    “It may actually for some. But for others it turns them off to the whole thing. And when you combine it with the fact that we have relative economic stability, then they’re not incentivized. If you go to the developing world, in democracies, who wins and loses an election may determine their very livelihood. For us? Eh, that’s really debatable. For most people (in our country), who wins or loses doesn’t determine whether they starve to death. So being politically active isn’t as prescient.

    “Another argument is that we have too many elections. We elect everything. I’ve gone into cities where they will elect the dogcatcher. And then we’ll elect the coroner. What on earth? I have a Ph.D. in political science, so I know a lot about politics, presumably. What on earth qualifies me to pick the coroner? People are overwhelmed by so many elections. If you go to other Westernized democracies with fewer elections, they have higher turnout. Up to 80 or 90 percent.”


    I feel like there are a lot of people who begrudgingly go the polls. The enthusiasm isn’t there or they’re just blah about the candidates. 

    “Why do people vote? We have a strong sense of civic duty. People feel compelled to vote because we are socialized into the idea in this country that it is our civic duty and that if you don’t vote, you’re not a good citizen. I can tell you that in survey research, if you just ask people whether or not they voted, turnout is like 80 or 85 percent. That’s evidence that there’s a civic duty. They feel a social desirability to say they voted, even if they didn’t because they would be embarrassed if they said they didn’t. And so the people who begrudgingly go vote, that sense of civic duty is high enough that, even if they’re not satisfied with the options or think they won’t be satisfied with the outcome, the civic duty outweighs that negative pressure.”


    What would you say to someone who said, “I don’t like anyone on the ballot and I am not going to vote.”

    “I’d say check whether you’re in a competitive district or not. If you’re not, then I get why you’re not going to vote. I’d say do some research to figure out if your vote will make a difference in the ultimate outcome, and if you find out that the system makes your vote absolutely moot, then do whatever makes you feel right. I know that sounds awful. Everyone says every vote counts! I’m sorry. Go look at the (electoral) map. It’s just not true. Because of the electoral college, because of gerrymandering, it’s just not true.”


    What about the race between Beshear and Bevin?

    “Part of the issue with that is that in Kentucky (the governor’s race) is an off-year election. If gubernatorial elections were happening at the same time as presidential elections, then we’d get a whopping 58-percent turnout.

    “We are in a competitive state. It matters. The partisanship is distributed comparably enough that either one — either a Democrat or a Republican — could win the statewide gubernatorial election. I suspect that turnout will be particularly high relative to the last election because of two things: One, Bevin has mobilized the opposition vote. And two, Bevin’s close relationship with Trump and Trump voters will motivate them. So both sides are going to turn out. But what does both sides turning out mean? 38 percent? 40 percent? I don’t know.” 

    This originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “Knock the Vote?” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Illustration by Shae Goodlett,

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