Did you see this headline?
- Nebraska Presidential Primary Decided by 13.76% of Voters (2016)
Maybe this one?
- Only 24% of Californians Vote in Presidential Primary (2016)
Or this one?
- 19.14% of South Carolina Voters Turn Out for Special Election (2017)
How about these?
- Dallas Mayor Chosen in Questionable Vote with 6% Turnout (2015)
- DC Mayoral Vote gets Just 20% Turnout; Results Uncertain (2014)
- NYC Mayoral Race Overshadowed by Low 14% Turnout (2013)
Actually, none of these headlines are real. The facts are all correct, but low turnout isn’t news in the United States. There is no required minimum level of voter participation in the U.S. and the level of voter turnout has no effect on election results.
In the week following the Puerto Rico plebiscite, headlines like these showed up in online news:
- 23% of Puerto Ricans Vote in Referendum, 97% of Them for Statehood
- Puerto Rico Votes on Statehood: Polls, Protests and What It Means
- Amid Historically Low Turnout, Puerto Ricans Vote for Statehood
- Puerto Rico votes for statehood in historically low turnout at the polls
- Puerto Rico votes for statehood in low voter turnout referendum
- Puerto Rico governor pushes statehood after boycott-plagued vote
- Puerto Rico Votes for Statehood in Low-Turnout Plebiscite
- Low Turnout Overshadows Puerto Rico Vote In Favor of US Statehood
- Puerto Rico Votes For Statehood In Referendum Marred By Record Low Turnout
According to Google, more than one quarter of the top headlines in the week of June 12 through June 17th took this tack. The 97% vote for statehood was literally overshadowed in press coverage by the low turnout… low turnout for a plebiscite vote, but ho-hum numbers for elections in general.
In fact, recent presidential elections in the United States — arguably the most important elections in the nation — have been decided by just barely over half of the registered voters. Only 35.9 percent of voters turned out in midterm elections in 2014. Low voter turnout is a completely normal part of the political landscape.
Why did Puerto Rico’s vote get so much “low turnout” coverage? Because anti-statehood organizations made it into news. They launched a boycott, and observers have correctly pointed out that nobody boycotts a vote they think they can win. Then, having given up efforts to win the vote, they put their resources into discrediting the plebiscite.
They were able to get at least one quarter of the headlines on the subject. Until we begin to see headlines like, “Kentucky Governor Chosen by 30% of Voters,” we’ll call this failed coverage of the Puerto Rico plebiscite.