In the upcoming primary election there won’t be a record number of Detroiters going to the polls to decide the final candidates in the race for mayor, city council and city clerk. It’s doubtful that the race will be the rock-em, sock-em, down and dirty outcome that produce winds of change that radically alter the political landscape. There simply aren’t enough voters left in the city who care — or believe — that those holding elective office will make a difference in their lives.
Pundits, in need of a hotly contested race that draw voters from the far reaches of the city are trying to ramp-up the dialogue by prodding and pointing out the differences between the leading contenders. A few challengers are charismatic with ideas and resumes that qualify them to intelligently discuss potent financial and bread-and-butter issues that need addressing – city services, crime jobs and investJment. But office-holding in Detroit is pretty much an unfruitful, dead-end career that is no longer attractive to incumbents or challengers.
The appointment of an emergency manager practically guarantees that for the foreseeable future the city will be managed by someone who is not elected by anyone. Knowing that eventual winners will have no real political power will cause scores of potential voters to sit out the election because they will have determined the outcome is meaningless.
There is no real sense that the electorate feel compelled to rush to the polls to uproot the powerless political establishment. There is no evidence that disenfranchised masses are anxiously waiting to usher into office a fresh batch of candidates who promise to “make things right.”
Substantial political research also has identified the powerful relationship between social status and turnout. When voting participation falls off, it is the poor and less educated who stop voting. And the lower down the economic ladder one goes, the lower the participation rate becomes. In this regard, Detroit has one of the highest unemployment and school dropout rates and poverty populations in the nation.
The resulting abysmal display of civic participation also suggests that Detroiters are turned off and tuned out. No doubt the historic lack of political response to public concerns is a contributing factor that adds to a sense of helplessness and frustration. That means the ranks of those who have become disillusioned about politics will probably swell since they can’t pin their hopes for a brighter future on the election outcome.
City churches once produced a reliable stream of dedicated voters. But many of the middle-class, law-abiding, educated and informed voters in these congregations have taken refuge in the suburbs.
The business community may get involved, but they have money rather than a ballot. Senior citizens, the most reliable voting bloc, may choose to throw up their hands in disgust about conditions in the city or the state of Detroit politics.
Political indifference, however, isn’t new to Detroit. City elections haven’t produced huge turnouts in decades. Of the estimated 700,000 residents, for example, there are more registered non-voters than voting age adults who aren’t registered. And on a purely mathematical basis, it is hard to make the case for any Detroiter voting. The turnout issue isn’t important without definable differences in the attitudes among those who vote and those who don’t.
There is no law to compel voting, and under the circumstances no way to browbeat city residents into participating. But who’s to blame?
It is voter apathy that allowed the Detroit political process to become somebody else’s exclusive domain in the first place. So there’s every reason to believe there will be more “Gone Fishing” signs than “Gone to Vote” signs come Election Day. So why bother?