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Our Views: Off-year votes count

If residents don’t turn out for municipal elections, we get the leaders we deserve

POSTED: November 3, 2013 12:30 a.m.

A year ago, the nation was focused on a bitterly contested presidential campaign between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Closer to home, voters in Northeast Georgia filled a new U.S. House seat while voting for state legislators, county commissioners and various other offices. With interest high, 70 percent of registered voters turned out in Hall County to cast ballots.

It’s easy to light a fire under the electorate during such elections, when the offices are high-profile, the stakes seem bigger and the airwaves are chock full of debates, slick ads and the latest “battleground” polls.

This week we have what is called an “off-year” election, mostly when cities elect their mayors, city councils and school board members. These races mostly are low-key affairs, with candidates unable or unwilling to raise and spend big money on advertising to attack the very ground their opponents walk upon.

The issues are more down-to-earth: Traffic, schools, development, taxes, infrastructure. Sewers and potholes aren’t the kind of topics that make it onto “Hardball” or “Crossfire,” but they do have an impact on our daily lives, sometimes more so than what happens in far-off Washington.

This year’s races include a new twist: An elected mayor position in Gainesville. City council still will include five members, with the mayor only voting in case of ties when a member is absent or abstains. Yet whomever is elected will serve as an advocate for key issues and as the face of the city. Four candidates are on the ballot, representing varied interests, experience and backgrounds, all determined to put their own stamp on the new position.

Also contested on the ballot are two posts on the Flowery Branch City Council and for mayor, and two city council posts in Clermont. Early voting numbers in both cities were strong, so interest appears high.

Growing towns like these need the right leadership to guide them through the uncertain path of balancing new development and the money it brings with preserving a quieter way of life for their residents. These aren’t simple topics with easy answers, which is why the races are so competitive.

And competition is good. Voters are better served by choices. Candidates who must run hard and express their ideas clearly tend to perform better once they are in office.

These local officials are your neighbors. You can see them at the grocery store, or you may frequent their businesses. They will answer your phone calls and emails. They are accessible, and will listen to constituents’ concerns. Try getting President Barack Obama or your senator on the phone and you’ll see the difference.

But when residents make the commitment to seek local office, we must do the same. Electing key officials with only a bare handful of voters taking part doesn’t constitute ideal representation. More voters must get involved if the leaders elected are going to be the responsive public servants we need them to be.

The three presidential races in the last decade brought out an average of 76 percent of Hall County voters. The three midterm congressional elections during that span, which included state races, averaged a 54 percent turnout.

Yet the five Gainesville municipal races since 2002 averaged only an 11 percent turnout, with a high of 24 percent in 2003. A few drew only around 3 percent, largely due to few races being contested those years.

Hall Elections Director Charlotte Sosebee is forecasting 25 percent of voters to show up at the polls Tuesday. Yet just 511 people voted early in Gainesville despite polls being open for three weeks.

So let’s do the math: The city has about 11,000 registered voters. If only 11 percent of them vote, then some 1,200 people would choose the city’s first elected mayor. Even if a quarter of voters cast ballots, as Sosebee predicts, that’s just 2,750 votes.

With four candidates in the field, a runoff is possible, if not likely; it would be held Dec. 3 at the start of the busy holiday season. If turnout for that round is even lower, which usually is the case, the margin of victory could well be a few dozen votes.

It would be a shame that in a growing, dynamic city of almost 35,000 people, only a few hundred votes could select the first elected mayor.

We hope voters in Gainesville and other area towns will show up in greater numbers to select the new faces for their governments. Doing so will show that residents are deeply involved in the key decisions that will decide their future.

And on the other side of that coin, failure for voters to turn out sends a different message to those who take office. They will feel free to take whatever actions they please, since most of the folks in town won’t seem to notice or care.

The old cliche that those who don’t vote can’t complain isn’t true; we can gripe all we want, regardless. Yet the goal of voting is to choose the right kind of leaders who will give us fewer reasons to be displeased.

It takes a healthy number of well-informed local voters to make that happen.


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