It happens so often now that it’s almost become a rite of passage for candidates who are new to the political arena: the embarrassing revelation that they haven’t actually voted much in the past.
The latest example comes from California, where former eBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, has been dealing with fallout from the disclosure that she failed to cast a ballot for most of her adult life. While her case is extreme, she’s just the latest in a long line of prominent political newcomers who found themselves on the defensive for skipping out on the most basic of civic duties. Many of them, it turns out, have won election in spite of it.
At the moment, candidates in a handful of other races outside California are also dealing with their nonvoting issues. In Connecticut, where Linda McMahon, former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, is seeking the GOP nomination for the Senate seat held by Democrat Chris Dodd, the campaign got off to an uneven start after her admission that she had failed to vote in several local elections and a 2006 general election. It turns out that she didn’t participate in the 2008 presidential primary, either, despite WWE’s efforts to urge young adults to vote — an initiative that included hosting Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain on “Monday Night RAW.”
Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca, who is vying for the Massachusetts Senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy, also recently conceded a habit of spotty voting. And in Seattle, mayoral candidate Joe Mallahan, a T-Mobile executive, has been confronted with his inconsistent voting record.
In shirking their civic responsibilities, this year’s crop of ballot-box slackers joins a list of distinguished candidates with undistinguished voting histories.
When New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, a former chairman and chief executive of Goldman Sachs, first ran for the Senate in 2000, it was revealed that he had not voted in a Democratic primary since 1988 and had missed three general elections. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had voted in only five of 11 statewide elections before the action movie star won the governorship in 2003.
Former Sens. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) were also dinged in their initial forays into elected politics. Frist, a heart surgeon, didn’t vote for a stretch of 18 years. Edwards, a trial lawyer, had failed to vote in half the elections in the seven years preceding his 1998 Senate run.
Frist decided to confront the issue head-on. At forums, he joked that he was a true Washington outsider because of his missed votes, according to GOP political consultant Tom Perdue, who managed Frist’s 1994 campaign. At the time, now-Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who challenged Frist in the GOP primary, ran ads slamming Frist’s record, but the criticism failed to gain traction, and Frist ultimately went on to become Senate majority leader.
“Everybody can relate to making a mistake,” said Perdue. “People aren’t going to beat you up for admitting you’re wrong and asking for forgiveness.”
Whitman’s camp, which has struggled to explain her failure to vote, has invoked the late Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.), who didn’t register to vote until he ran for mayor of Palm Springs, Calif.
“He went on to be a successful mayor and a successful member of Congress,” said his widow, Rep. Mary Bono Mack, at the California Republican Party convention last week in Whitman’s defense.
Veteran Democratic political consultant Bob Shrum, who worked with both Edwards and Corzine, said voters are forgiving, up to a point.
“Most voters in America have one time or another missed an election and, over a period of years, miss a few elections,” he said.
But, he added, the fact that Whitman “[did] not vote for 28 years [is] a pretty astounding record. ... It really conveys this was a wealthy, enterprising businessperson who didn’t think it was important to be a part of civic life. I bet she didn’t miss board meetings or stock options.”
Shrum’s barb reflects the sharp criticism that candidates like Whitman are exposed to when their voting records come to light. On one hand, they make attractive candidates because they’re able to self-fund their campaigns. On the other, they often haven’t been engaged in public life.
The corporate background and the attendant personal wealth, when coupled with a sporadic voting record, can significantly tarnish a candidate’s image, said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist.
“Voters consider the failure to vote as confirmation of what they already suspect: that [the] person is running because they’re bored, because being in politics looks like fun, but that they don’t have any particularly serious commitment to voters,” he said.
In 1998, Sragow aided wealthy Northwest Airlines Co-chairman Al Checchi’s failed run for California governor, a contest in which Checchi’s lackluster voting record was put on display.
“Al Checchi didn’t care enough to vote the last time we elected a governor,” said an attack ad. “Now he wants to be governor?”
The assault on his voting record didn’t determine the outcome, Sragow said, but it was a “piece of information that got some attention.”
That helps explain why Whitman’s challenger for the GOP nod for governor, California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, is using a similar tactic. In an ad criticizing Whitman’s missed votes, the narrator says, “Whitman didn’t vote for one president, congressman, senator or governor. ... She didn’t skip some votes, as she claims. She skipped every one — for 28 years.”
Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University who studies voting behavior, thinks that evolving generational attitudes toward voting may put the current rash of nonvoting candidates in greater political jeopardy than those who came before them.
“At one point we did have a different sort of culture in the U.S.,” said McDonald. “Voting was for rubes, if you will. It wasn’t very cool to go out and vote. Now we’ve seen resurgence in voting over the last couple of elections. The idea that voting is something important has changed dramatically. Maybe 10 years ago, people wouldn’t have been as outraged as they are today.”