Near empty polling places reflect more than just good old voter apathy

    Chances are you didn’t have to wait in line to vote in the primary elections this past Tuesday.
    So why the lack of interest? Well, the problem may be as much a question of voter apathy as it is about the candidate’s attitudes.

    Listen: [audio: satullo20090524.mp3]

    Last week, Alan Butkovitz won the Democratic primary for controller of Philadelphia.

    I’ll wait a moment for the yawning to die down.

    Only about 12 percent of the city’s electorate bothered to vote. That’s even worse than usual for these sleepy, “off year” elections when no presidents or mayors get elected.

    Still, you’d think, in a city so beset by scandal and corruption, the task of selecting a fiscal watchdog might spur a little interest.

    Here’s one guess as to why this unusually competitive race among three candidates, each plausibly qualified and passably articulate, drew such a tiny crowd.

    You see, a few weeks back, I had the job (I would not call it a privilege) of moderating a debate among these three – the incumbent, Butkovitz; the gadfly. Brett Mandel, and the perennial office-seeker, John Braxton.

    After trying to referee that orgy of eye-gouging and rabbit punching the three men conducted, I reached a conclusion that I suspect was shared by many who checked in, however briefly, on this campaign: “I choose none of the above. Who’s the Republican candidate?”

    As a matter of fact, the GOP’s guy, Al Schmidt, was in the audience that night in Mayfair, watching the carnage with a bemused smile. He seems a pleasant fellow. That was enough to make him seem godlike compared to the three sniping Democrats.

    Here’s what is most depressing: This controllers’ race wasn’t particularly nasty, judged by current norms. These guys were just doing what most candidates seem to think they must to win.

    Sure, Barack Obama won the big prize while sticking to the lofty reaches of the high road. But a hot presidential candidate attracts plenty of surrogates willing do his dirty work for him. In low-wattage local races like controller, the candidates pretty much have to wield their own machetes.

    Still, why do politicians think that behavior that would get you kicked out as a house guest – the snarling, the harping, the carping – makes for a winning strategy at the polls?

    I know, I know: Politics is not croquet. You can’t expect a candidate to sacrifice his chance of victory on the altar of etiquette.

    I don’t ask for saintly behavior; just a modicum of decency, something above the level of cranky alligators fighting in a mud flat. Such unappetizing displays are a big reason why voters continue to tune out local elections, in droves.

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