Detroit will not be a major player in the November statewide election sweepstakes. If the turnout in the August 3 primary is any indication, neither the Republican nor Democratic candidates will find a wealth of votes among the body politic. Massive indifference will relegate the selection of the governor and other top leadership positions to someone else’s almost exclusive domain.
In an abysmal display of civic participation, only 15.2 percent of 567,102 registered Detroit primary voters turned out on Election Day. Their absence reveals some rather unflattering characteristics about non-voters.
For one, the issue of turnout may actually be insignificant without distinguishable differences in candidate choices. Detroit, after all, is a virtual one-party Democratic-controlled city. Some voters may have turned away from the same tired ideological platforms and political pronouncements and tuned out.
One of the most consistent findings among researchers is the compelling relationship between social status and turnout. The combination of increasing poverty and voter abstention has been evident over time.
In 1950, the Census Bureau pegged Detroit as one of the wealthiest big cities in America. At the time, the 1st and the 13th Congressional Districts – both located within the city boundaries — were the most powerful in the state. Candidates on the federal, state and local levels enthusiastically courted voters in these prime districts.
Population declines of committed voters, and later redistricting, eventually wiped out both election powerhouses. The 1st District became the 14th and the 13th was reapportioned and incorporated to include areas outside the city limits. Both have a more diversified electorate, which also correlates with Detroit’s vanishing political muscle.
Today, Detroit is the nation’s 2nd poorest major city, just edging out Cleveland. With per capita earnings just over $14,000 – Detroit ranks below the federal poverty guidelines of $14,500 for a family of two. With rising poverty rates came lower voter participation levels.
Educational attainment — or lack thereof — is another factor. Detroit’s public school system has one of the highest school dropout rates and lowest graduation rates found anywhere. The high school GPA is barely distinguishable from failure. Students score in the lowest percentile in national math and reading tests.
The problem of education is multi-generational. Back in the mid-1990s the National Institute for Literacy classified upwards of 47 percent of Detroit adults as functional illiterates. That means about half the population can’t read or comprehend medicine prescription directions, let alone complex boilerplate language on millages, tax issues, voter referendums and constitutional amendments. The state of Detroit’s education worsened in the interim.
To merely suggest that the main reason Detroit is home to a preponderance of nonvoters is because they lack interest, doesn’t go to the core. Some candidates have historically lacked broad appeal and substance. More interesting is whether Detroit election outcomes are helped or skewed as participation in democracy wanes.
The social statistics that contribute to disenfranchisement can’t be ignored. Although sensitive, they call out for answers.
Are Detroiters sufficiently informed on the issues of the day? Are they capable of understanding and intelligently voting for referendums, millage proposals and bond authorizations? Can they make smart candidate selections? Is Michigan better off because Detroiters don’t vote? Is Detroit?
In the general election, expect Democratic candidates to make their usual empty promises of jobs and hope. Republicans will stay true to form and campaign where the votes are. Detroiters will stay home and suffer in silence.