Here in Northeast, we must have paid attention in civics class. A year ago, on a day that dawned dark, dreary, chilly and sleety, about 92 percent of us went out and voted for the candidates and issues of our choices. And yet, a month ago, with candidates and issues that seemed much closer to home and pocketbook, two out of every three of those hearty voters stayed away from the polls, and we ended up with a turnout of about 32 percent.
The reason, of course, is commonly known. More people go vote when the Presidency of the United States is at stake (apparently a lot more). We don’t deny the truth of this. However, we don’t accept that it is necessary or inevitable, and we urge residents and officials to start now in an effort to change those numbers.
We think the case for voting in the 2005 city elections was particularly compelling. Most of our readers and potential readers disagreed; which (fortunate for them) keeps any thoughts that we might be political pundits firmly in check. When we look at the ballot we see, with some exceptions, public offices that have far more direct impact on residents’ lives than any direction Washington D.C. politics happen to take.
Residents in St. Anthony, Hilltop and Columbia Heights voted on funding for their schools. What’s more important than that?
Minneapolis residents elected numerous officials. City Council: These are the people who supervise the basics—streets, safety, water. They decide, in substantial part, how long it will take for a police officer or fire fighter to arrive in an emergency. They decide if those potholes will be fixed this year or next. They decide who gets to build what, where and how. What’s more important than that?
Library Board: These are the people who will decide, for many, how Minneapolis people will communicate—with themselves and with the outside world—in the 21st Century. What’s more important than that?
Park and Recreation Board: These are the people who will decide how Minneapolis deals with infestations that kill thousands of trees, including the ones in our yards; and these are the people who decide how much and what kind of open space we in the city get to have. What’s more important than that?
For two thirds of the voters out there, apparently, quite a bit. What can people do to turn it around?
First, folks have to agree that it needs to be turned around. If the real motivation for not voting was a strong conviction that someone else ought to decide these things, we won’t get very far in our quest to improve voter turnout. We’re betting, however, that it isn’t like that.
Instead, we think that everyone involved—the office holders, the candidates, the regulators, the media, the voters—needs to view a low voter turnout the way a football coach views a loss. Like the coach who goes over the video of the lost game, each group listed above needs to look at 2005 and see that the game plan, whatever it was, really didn’t work. And they have to figure out what to do differently so they have a better chance of “winning” (achieving a higher voter turnout) in the future.
It makes sense to evaluate the entire process, looking for ways to increase participation. For the regulators: Would it help to have more than one day for voting? Would it help to have more options such as online voting and mail-in ballots?
For the media: Do we fall into a rut writing articles about candidates, getting sound bites, endorsing, and editorially pleading with folks to vote and then whining when they don’t? Do we need to re-think the way we convey information?
It’s easy to chuckle at the “Monday morning quarterback.” But among the Monday morning quarterbacks are the coaches who can figure out what went wrong and what needs to be done so the team has a better chance of winning next time.
It will require breaking new ground. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be risk-free. Strong voter turnout is a prize that’s worth some work and some risk. It tells elected officials that the public is with them; it also tells them that the public is watching closely. Weak voter turnout gives elected officials just the opposite message, and tells those who would “dump on” an area that they can get away with it. That’s not a message Northeast should send. We hope all involved will engage their intellect and creativity to make the next city election a model for civics classes everywhere.
Kerry Ashmore is editor/publisher of the Northeaster and North News.